I came into the world of Immortal Beloved very late in the game. I had been meaning to see it for years, to see what Gary Oldman did with the epic maestro, but I never got around to it. Then, one summer night in 2005, I had a long conversation about the film with a friend of mine. Instead of the normal, surface recommendation one is apt to get in cases like these, his eyes lit up as he began to list off the reasons I should see it. He didn't just vaguely like it; the film stuck with him and inspired him. He talked about how wonderfully the film portrayed Ludwig van Beethoven's music, and he sent me on my way to discover one particularly moving scene for myself.
Since he wouldn't tell me about this moment until I had seen the movie, I had assumed there would be one obvious and moving scene that stuck out above the others. Instead, I was faced with a partly true, partly fictional biopic that presented a number of well-crafted moments that matched perfectly to Beethoven's work. But really, they do not so much match his music, as live it. Many films can team music with a certain mood, but few actually embody the life of the music itself -- the story that it is telling. This film is a doorway into the world of symphonies -- not to notice their power, but to take the first step towards recognizing the story being told by the collection of notes.
For the film, writer and director Bernard Rose chose to focus on Beethoven's famous letter to his Immortal Beloved. However, instead of using base facts and historical conjecture, and being chained by them, Rose used parts of Beethoven's actual life, and molded them into a fictional account. In Rose's world of the famous composer, Ludwig dies and associate Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé) discovers the mysterious letter. He then goes on a mission to find out who this mysterious woman is, because Beethoven has left everything to her.
Schindler interviews women who were involved with Beethoven, starting with Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golino). Through her eyes we see Beethoven's passion, his early attempts to keep his deafness under wraps, and his once appreciation for Napoleon. When Schindler moves on to Countess Erdody (Isabella Rossellini), Beethoven's life begins to crumble, and the rest of the story falls into place. Socially, the composer struggles with the public discovering that he is deaf. Personally, he deals with the death of his brother and the struggle to gain custody of his nephew. Karl (Marco Hofschneider) lives with his mother Johanna (Johanna ter Steege), who Beethoven warred with for years over her marriage to his brother. Adding further blows, like the discovery that Napoleon isn't the democrat he thought he was, the composer's life falters.
The film is punctuated by Beethoven's classic music. When he sits at a new piano and rests his head against the smooth wood to feel the notes of Moonlight Sonata, you can feel his pain. The notes are weighed with it, and you can imagine what it must have been like for one of the world's best composers to not be able to hear his own creations. This is the scene that hit home for me, but for many others, including my friend, the epically poetic use of Beethoven's music comes with the Ode to Joy. Each note has a purpose and while we can never completely enter Beethoven's head, the link between action and the notes of a symphony begin to link -- a young boy runs through the forest, crawls into a lake, and then floats on his back as the notes erupt and the star-filled sky reflects off the still water.
But life for Beethoven was anything but still, and Gary Oldman knows how to embody Rose's portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven. He is the maestro ripped out of the images we've seen of him. He exists for us breathing, full color. Oldman adeptly traverses the fine line between Beethoven, the drunk, warring brute, and Beethoven, the tragic figure. It's tricky making the audience relate to such a flawed character without creating some sort of antihero, but Oldman pulls it off. This is key, because we must relate -- it is necessary for us to feel the pain over the final revelation -- and Oldman makes that perfectly possible.
When it all comes to a head, and the secret is revealed, Immortal Beloved could pack the punch of surprise and disbelief. But instead, it just simply makes sense. Obvious, grating clues like those employed by films like The Illusionist, don't make it possible. Rather -- the revelation doesn't light up specific moments we have already seen -- it just provides the emotional background to those scenes. It offers understanding, and while it might not be entirely accurate, this understanding is what makes the film thrive.
Immortal Beloved invites the viewer to investigate Beethoven, not just get wrapped in a compelling story. What made him what he was? What was the mystery behind that letter? The film reveals how missed details can completely warp a story, and create easy, false assumptions, but it also allows us to feel the composer's passion. We're not just watching the film and wowing over the power of the music. We can begin to imagine what Ludwig was trying to say all those years ago. Immortal Beloved never made the waves that its predecessor Amadeus did, but it is just as worthy an achievement.