It’s tough being Ludwig Van Beethoven. His fellow exalted contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a rock star before there were rock stars, sealed his mythology by dying young under mysterious circumstances, and two centuries after his passing, was tributed with not only one of the greatest music films, but one of the greatest films of all time period, in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. It brilliantly depicted him as the iconoclastic, irrepressible genius that he was – and, well, he got the girls.
Ludwig, fittingly, had the volatile (at the time) Gary Oldman accept the challenge of playing him in Bernard Rose’s 1995 biopic Immortal Beloved. And for accuracy’s sake, the actor was forced to portray him as the pompous, and eventually grumpy virtuoso, who suffered the ultimate anguish of losing his hearing at the height of his creativity. Whereas critics rightly showered Amadeus with praise (it won eight Oscars), they were deeply divided regarding Rose’s film.
Beethoven will turn 250 this coming December, and there will be many musical tributes, especially in Vienna, where he spent his prime working years (the New York Times has already filed a rhapsodic report on how the composer will be honored in the Austrian capital). But we would suggest that it’s exactly the right time to revisit the film, as well, which just happens to have a 25th anniversary this very month.
The pic actually builds around a brilliantly imagined premise: a real letter was discovered after Beethoven’s death, addressed only to his “immortal beloved.” His confidante Herr Schindler (played with a visceral empathy by Jeroen Krabbe) then embarks on a determined journey of discovery to learn the addressee’s true identity, and thus rightly bestow the composer’s estate and, emotionally, accomplish closure.
The narrative then bounces between the present and captivating biographical flashbacks, following Ludwig from his amorous youth, to the first recognitions of his giftedness, and on to his tragic decline. Some things never change, early on the rich and powerful want to have him around to show off their “good taste,” while traditionalists (mostly male) scoff at his artistic irreverence and his arrogant hotheadedness.
The young women, naturally, swoon before his talent (Isabella Rossellini is positively radiant as the Countess Anna Maria Erdödy, as is Valeria Golino as Giulietta Guicciardi). Yet unlike the riotous, free-spirited Wolfie, Beethoven is just so much vitriol, being always a difficult lover, and snarling at all the philistines around him who are surely too culturally infantile to understand his obviously epochal work.
But it’s actually posited that a single incident perhaps pivoted his life into bitterness: a rendezvous with a lover gone wrong—gorgeously shot at the fabled Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic—which sees him in his rage throw an expensive chair out a hotel window. That single act reveals so much about the inner Beethoven, that Rose afterwards allows the camera an extended, and very affecting pause on his despondent, defeated countenance.
Oldman really does give a tour de force performance in Immortal Beloved—but perhaps Beethoven’s insolence just didn’t play as well as Mozart’s wild free-spiritedness. Still and all, on the occasion of Ludwig’s 250th, we vigorously recommend taking the time to see one of the greatest actors of his generation, play one of the greatest composers of all time. You won’t be sorry.