Dir. Agnieszka Holland , US / Germany / Hungary, 2006, 104 mins
Cast: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode, Joe Anderson
Review by Carol Allen
Ed Harris gives a terrific performance as Beethoven in the final years of his life, after he was stricken with deafness. The actor is almost unrecognisable in the way he submerges himself physically and mentally into the character. Kruger plays Anna, a young and ambitious music student in Vienna , who applies for the job of being the notoriously fiery Beethoven's copyist. She is ambitious to learn from the maestro, he at first refuses to work with her because she is a woman, but her determination plus the fact that no-one else will take the job wins him over pretty quickly and the film is the story of the deep, mutually supportive and frequently stormy friendship that develops between the student and her mercurial mentor. Wisely the film avoids any suggestion of romance between them.
Despite her fragile blonde beauty Kruger gives Anna considerable strength and there's a distinctly feminist sense of anger and injustice about her with regard to the dismissive attitude of the music world towards women composers, injected, one suspects,by Holland herself. It's a bit of a disappointment to discover that the character is a fictional amalgam of several people, both male and female, who played a role in Beethoven's later years, rather than a real person as such. Harris embraces the complexities of his role with enthusiasm, sometimes the scary, impatient and cruelly sarcastic" beast", as he is described by his publisher, at other times a kindly and often touchingly dependent teacher and friend to Anna. He captures the loneliness and isolation of Beethoven's deafness and convinces as a musical genius. Goode makes an im press ion as Anna's fiancé, who in a sly reflection of today's world is very put out by her devotion to her job and her boss, while Anderson is im press ive as Beethoven's conflicted nephew Karl.
There are also some delightful imaginings as in the character of an elderly woman, who lives in the windowless flat next door and puts up with the noise and inconvenience of having Beethoven as a next door neighbour just so she can be the first to hear his music coming through the wall and a neat musical in joke in the person of Anna's aunt (Phyllida Law), who herself came to Vienna as a young woman hoping to study under Salieiri (see "Amadeus"). The music is plentiful and enjoyable, most memorably in the sequence of the premiere performance of the Chorale Symphony, which Beethoven's publisher foretells will be a disaster, both because of the maestro's insistence on conducting it himself despite his deafness and the insanity of keeping a whole choir standing around with nothing to do until their big number at the end. The device of having Anna guiding his conducting from the pit out of sight of the audience is perhaps a bit whimsical but the musical performance itself is incredibly exciting and moving, including Karl sneaking in to listen with tears in his eyes and the muffled rumble of applause at the end, as heard through Beethoven's ears and at first unrecognised by him, until Anna appears on stage and turns him round to face the plaudits of his audience.