Movie Review: Immortal Beloved (1994)

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When I first saw the poster for Immortal Beloved just about a month ago, the first thing that ran through my mind was, “A movie about Beethoven…with Gary Oldman…how have I never seen or heard of this before?” I happen to have a love of films that center around composers and their music (which may be ironic, because I detest actual musicals, both in film and on stage, so much), and have probably seen Amadeus close to 30 times by now. So late last night, just after midnight, when I was searching through Comcast’s Xfinity Streampix feature, the title of this film popped up and I became really excited, because it was by accident that I would be able to watch this surprisingly rare and seemingly forgotten movie. The story begins, much like Amadeus, after the composer’s death, and is told predominantly through the perspective of his secretary and only friend, Anton Schindler, played by Jeroen Krabbe. It then takes many expertly crafted twists and turns through the life and many mysterious loves of Ludvig Van Beethoven. It is after the funeral that Beethoven’s secretary and brother are rummaging through his personal items and discover an updated will left by the deceased maestro, and also a love-letter, both addressed to the same person: an unknown “immortal beloved”. While the brother wants to discard the new will, because the original had him receiving the bulk of the estate, Schindler takes it upon himself to investigate further, and track down Beethoven’s lost love.

The story that would unfold is one of tragedy, as we see the life that Beethoven lived, and all its difficulties given his harsh personality, undoubtedly made so by his deafness, which we are led to believe was caused by his father beating him after he flubbed a recital when he was 12 years old. We often picture Beethoven as this old, emotionless, brutish madman incapable of feeling, but this film, based in fact, shows us the other side of one of the world’s greatest composers, including some youthful exuberance. It is a very complex character we have to deal with, and just when it appears he and one 0f his loves will find happiness, something happens and he moves on to someone else. While the web is indeed tangled all over the place, the story, which is told in flashback, contains enough trips back to the “present” to refresh our memory on what exactly is happening. Beethoven’s actions can be maddening, but we also feel sorry for him on numerous occasions. The director made sure to phase out the volume and have the shot remain in silence several times, so we can literally get into his head, and have an idea of what Beethoven felt like, being able to see his music be performed, but not hear it—a very depressing realization.

If there is something that intrigued me prior to watching the film, it was how will Gary Oldman do in the part? Sure, he looked like him, but could he actually make it believable? The answer is yes. In fact, I think the performance is quite underplayed, maybe out of fear that he would over-act and slip into the common “raving lunatic” caricature we have all drawn of Beethoven in our minds. What we have here is an excellent performance, achieving everything it sets out to do. Oldman is a tortured man, we can see it in his eyes, and his overall product is helped along by the great progressive aging job the makeup artists did. In fact, I felt the makeup, cinematography, sets, and costume design were all worthy of Academy Awards, yet it was not even nominated for a single one. Even the screenplay, when upon viewing, you step back and think about, could have won. The grandeur and intricate story-telling made this feel like the 1990’s, Beethoven-themed answer to Amadeus, though the stories are not similar in any way, apart from the flashback style in which they are told.

It is then fair for me to say that this is one of the most well-made movies I have ever seen. It captured the atmosphere of early 1800’s Austria to perfection, and truly made us feel like we were there. It also captured the essence and political and social climates of the times, and people who love the Napoleonic Wars era will be pleased to find his invasion of Austria and siege of Vienna included (the cannons even recoil upon firing, something that full-on war movies cannot get right!). This is one of those few times where I am genuinely surprised. The director (Bernard Rose) included every little nuance, while getting very good supporting performances out of Krabbe, Isabella Rossellini, Johanna ter Steege, and Marco Hofschneider, and the result is almost perfect. Also like Amadeus, the film does weave in some historical fiction as it takes an educated guess at just who the “immortal beloved” might be, which might get Beethoven die-hards upset, because scholars still cannot agree on the woman (and I think prefer the mystery), but for the way the story was crafted, it makes perfect sense, and gives us closure when the end credits role.

Final rating: 9 out of 10.

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