Sony // 1994 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // August 2nd, 2007
The untold story of Ludwig Van Beethoven.
In the midst of the American independent movement of the mid '90s, a film surrounding the life of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven reached minor crossover success to the American public, and avoided the label of being "just another Amadeus." The film had a capable international cast and music that stayed in the viewer's ears long after the final frames had run their course. So now that it's out on Blu-ray, is it worth the wampum?
Written and directed by Bernard Rose (Anna Karenina), the film shows the life of the composer, but it's taken in a new and different tact. The story starts with Beethoven's death, and the intent of his assistant Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe, The Fugitive) to sort out his estate. He finds a letter, written by the composer, addressed to someone he calls his "Immortal Beloved." Schindler embarks on a quest to reunite with the previous loves of Beethoven's life, and find out who the letter was written for, and to make sure his last wishes are properly realized.
I disagree with those who want to label this as an old take on a somewhat familiar subject. Whereas the focus of Tom Hulce's performance in Amadeus was as a visionary who never received the respect and admiration from his family, despite adoration from his peers, Immortal Beloved is careful not to go down that same road. What helps set this apart from Amadeus is that Bernard Rose makes classical music accessible to the layman. He creates, in essence, music videos that help accentuate the music, and advance the story remarkably from scene to scene. Combining that, with the mystery that is set in place in the beginning, and you have a fascinating movie.
The performances are all excellent. Two of the women appear in roles where they have never looked or acted better. You have Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), who plays Erdody, a woman who managed to rescue Beethoven from his doldrums, despite Napoleon's takeover of the country. Then there is Valeria Golino (Hot Shots), who is one of Beethoven's earliest passions. The final piece of the puzzle is a woman named Johanna (Johanna ter Steege, The Vanishing), a woman who wed and had the child of one of Beethoven's brothers. However, after the brother died, Beethoven fought to wrest the guardianship of their child from Johanna. What occurs after that is a story arc that reinforces how unpleasant the composer was to be around, both as a family member and as a human being. It's readily apparent that Gary Oldman (Lost in Space) put a lot of time and energy into the role, and his musicianship is impressive. For someone who passed on the role twice before taking it (for fear of becoming the 'biopic' actor; this is after all the guy who played Lee Harvey Oswald, Sid Vicious and Dracula before taking on Beethoven), he invests heavily into the role, and it proves a compelling performance.
Is a small disappointment, the disc appears with the MPEG-2 codec in all of its 2.40:1 anamorphic glory. The image isn't as deep as compared to other titles, but there is quite a bit of detail that can be made out in the image. For the most part blacks remain solid and provide a contrast and the image is sharp as a tack. And considering the subject matter of the film, to see it with TrueHD tracks in English and French is worth the trip. The "Ode to Joy" scenes sound phenomenal like it's hot off the soundtrack album, and the dynamic range the music possesses is great.
The Blu-ray disc gets rid of some of the static extras on the standard definition disc, and keeps the commentary with Bernard Rose. He's a pretty dry character, and there are a lot of gaps of silence in his commentary, but the guy sure has a passion for what he's talking about. He discusses Beethoven's style within classical composers, and shares his thoughts on Ludwig's music, along with the music of today, while throwing in the occasional production nugget. Clearly, he's a fan of the genre. "Beloved Beethoven" is a half hour long look at the film with interviews with the cast, presumably done for the film's press junket, and everyone shares their thoughts on the characters, all the while as on set footage is playing. The on-set featurette is also included, runs about six minutes look and is a little redundant.
I would have loved to be the guy who documented Oldman's transformation into the musical genius, and in particular the lessons he had to go through to look like an expert pianist. That and some other substantial feature (maybe a retrospective with new interviews?) would make for a real keeper, but these complaints are minor. The larger issue is of the Beethoven story arc, which comes off as being too conventional. HeÂ's a misunderstood genius who gets along with few, but who winds up receiving universal praise in the December of his life. We've seen that times before, but it's clear Rose wants to pay attention to the primary story of who is the focus of the mysterious letter.
Compared to the standard definition DVD, you're looking at the paring down of a few extras, not to mention the high definition video and audio that this film deserves. It's definitely worth the upgrade/double dip, and those who haven't seen this before should at least rent it on Blu-ray and do themselves the favor of playing this thing loud.
Not guilty, if for nothing else to hear "Ode to Joy" on a good sound system acquits the film of any sin it might have committed.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Original Featurette
* Director Bernard Rose's Commentary
* "Beloved Beethoven" Documentary
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* When in Bonn, visit the Beethoven Haus!