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MGM Studios DVD presents
Copying Beethoven (2006)

"You can't stop him from doing anything. He's a force of nature."
- Karl van Beethoven (Joe Anderson)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: May 07, 2007

Stars: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger
Other Stars: Matthew Goode, Ralph Riach, Phyllida Law, Joe Anderson, Angus Barnett, Nicholas Jones
Director: Agnieszka Holland

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual elements
Run Time: 01h:44m:17s
Release Date: April 03, 2007
UPC: 027616064981
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

For some reason, filmmakers are more enamored with the idea of Beethoven than the actuality of Beethoven when making a film about the composer. That has long been the case, from the wildly romantic version by Abel Gance, Beethoven (1936), to the absurdly contrived but nonetheless lavish Immortal Beloved, which take elements of the public perception of Beethoven and run with them to often absurd lengths. That pattern is followed with Copying Beethoven, directed by Agnieszka Holland, which takes the irascibility and crudity of the man and concocts a wholly fictional story around them.

Diane Kruger portrays young composer Anna Holtz (or Holz, since the spelling seems flexible) , who is living in a Viennese convent while she studies music. Beethoven's publisher, Wenzel Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), is told to find a copyist for the parts of the Ninth Symphony, which is due to be premiered, and chooses Anna. After his initial disbelief, Beethoven (Ed Harris) warms to the spirited woman and takes her as protegé and confidante, assisting her with her own compositions. But genius remains impenetrable, and although Anna is simpatico with the Ninth, she finds herself increasingly at sea with the Grosse Fuge, op. 133, and like his friends she begins to wonder if the man has gone mad from his deafness.

The device of the female copyist is both wholly fanciful and rather crudely inserted into the tale. Given the name, the writers appear to be evoking Beethoven's last assistant, Karl Holz, who other than the name and his devotion to the composer bears little resemblance to Anna. It doesn't help that Kruger acts like the fashion model that she is; although originally German, she adopts a strong American accent that makes her feel even more out of place. She feels like a 21st-century woman plopped into 19th-century trappings. There are plenty of issues with the portrayal of Beethoven's life, mixing different time periods as one and compressing very different compositional styles into one for dramatic effect. Another casualty of cinematic portrayal is dispensing with Beethoven's written conversation books, instead turning him into a lip reader and making his deafness disappear altogether when it is convenient. I also find it more than unlikely that Beethoven's beloved pupil and patron the Archduke Rudolph (Nicholas Jones) would gratuitously insult Beethoven's music to the composer's face.

The picture does manage to get some things right, however. The portrayal of nephew Karl (Joe Anderson) is particularly good, as he has only remnants of tender affection for his driven uncle, worn down by the domineering expectations of the composer. Various tidbits from the biographies also make their way into the portrayal, such as Beethoven's habit for giving himself showers in the middle of his living room to the distress of the people living downstairs. The use of period instruments and temperaments is a nice touch, though the performance of the Ninth detours into the use of modern instruments for some reason. Beethoven's penchant for abusing his friends (he wrote musical jokes referencing them, such as "Schuppanzigh is a fat lout" and "Holz plays the quartet as if he were chopping cabbage") is here, as well as his earnest desire to patch things up once he goes too far.

Much of the credit goes to Ed Harris, who completely vanishes into the character; he's utterly unrecognizable as Ed Harris in the role and seems to inhabit it with passion worthy of the Maestro in full creative raptus. But he can't quite make up for the shortcomings of the leading lady, or the sometimes absurd situations that the script puts him into (such as having her lead him in conducting the premiere of the Ninth while sitting in the middle of the orchestra, in full view of everyone). The candlelight sequences have a lovely glow reminiscent of similar scenes in Barry Lyndon. The music is of course ravishing, and it's disappointing that with so much going right from a production standpoint, it is wasted on a silly script, and further sabotaged by Kruger's inability.

Mark Zimmer is the Project Director of The Unheard Beethoven.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture looks decent, although the limited palette is rather unattractive, making nearly everything grey, green, or brown. Aliasing is common on the violin bows, and shots of cobblestone streets have a rather obnoxious shimmer. Detail and texture are reasonably good.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: A 5.1 English track is present, as well as a more limited 2.0 Spanish track. The audio is quite clean, with no hiss or noise, as one would expect for a relatively new movie. The recordings of the Ninth and the Grosse Fuge are somewhat lacking in life and presence, with boosted loudness serving as an unacceptable substitute for the bite of a bow on a violin string.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
5 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ed Harris and Agnieszka Holland
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 00h:58m:01s

Extras Review: Ed Harris and director Agnieszka Holland contribute a thoughtful commentary that helps resolve some of the issues with the Hollywoodization of Beethoven's late career, but towards the end there get to be substantial dead spots. A featurette on Orchestrating Copying Beethoven (9m:56s) is a fairly garden variety making of, with plenty of EPK fluff about how wonderful everyone involved is. Finally, there are five deleted scenes, with optional commentary from Holland, running about eight minutes total.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

On one hand, there's an honest attempt at recreating the period, but on the other the effort is wasted on a ridiculous script. The image is a bit murky, but there are some solid extras.


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