"Immortal Beloved" tries to give us a sexy Beethoven, but the movie's plodding pace brings to mind another German composer. Like Wagner and bad sex, Bernard Rose's latest effort is boring, protracted and strangely anti-climactic.
The story of Beethoven's tormented love life seems to have the potential to titillate. Rose takes his cue from a real love letter written by the composer on his death bed. (Scholars have been unable to determine the true identity of the "immortal beloved" to whom the letter was addressed.) Anton Schindler is the heroic detective in the film's search for the mystery woman. Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe) is Beethoven's miserably earnest friend.
Schindler's quest to find the "immortal beloved" begins at a hotel where the composer and his beloved supposedly had a final, ill-fated rendez-vous. "I can only wemember ze damage," declares the elderly hotel-keeper, as the composer's shadowy past begins to come to life through a series of flashbacks complete with the requsite squiggly line effects.
We soon discover that there were many women in Beethoven's life. Rose gives us shrews and muses, peasant girls and busty countesses as well as the obligtory nude romp through a picturesque garden. Unfortunately, these feeble attempts to sex up the story fail to make it any more compelling.
Gary Oldman, who hasn't had a decent movie role since he played Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?), seems suited to the role of Beethoven. The actor embodies the right combination of anger and sensuality, but he's no match for the movie's ludicrous plot and bad dialogue. The film never permits him to excercise the wonderful sense of irony that underlies his best performances. The reptilian Oldman is forced to sit around in a bad wig reminiscent of the worst excesses of J.J. Jimmy Walker. Mostly, he purses his lips and sulks.
Isabella Rosselini and Valeria Golino, who play two of Beethoven's mistresses, suffer the similar fate of not having much to do. The audience is lead to belive, as Schindler does, that one of them is the "immortal beloved," and director Rose wastes a great deal of time with boring subplots concerning their lives.
The film's love scenes have a disconcerting teen sex-comedy aura, but the actors have no choice but to play them straight. "Impromptu" managed to have a lot more fun with the idea of great art and doomed romance. Plus, it had Hugh Grant.
The real heart of the film is the composer's relationship with his sister-in-law (Johanna Ter Steege) and her son, of whom Beethoven eventually gains custody. However charming, it doesn't win us over. The film's climactic revelation comes too late. Who on earth is the immortal beloved? Who cares.
The contrived "Immortal Beloved" would have worked better as a farce. The film's misguided distortion of facts simply can't sustain high drama. In one scene, Beethoven's doomed nephew, driven to suicide by his uncle's frustarted attempts to mold him into a musical prodigy, shoots himself in the head. In a scene reminiscent of the Time-Life "Mysteries of the Unknown" commercial, the composer, miles away, simultaneously doubles over in pain.
Coordinating Beethoven's music with the story poses another problem. The relentless melodrama of the film contrasts with the composer's work to an unintentionally comic effect. And of course, we hear plenty of the Fifth Symphony at crucial intervals.
Rose's effort to get to the bottom of the man's cruelties and contradictions doesn't work. At the end of the movie, Beethoven's tortured "immortal beloved" declares, "I for gave him because of the 'Ode to Joy.'" "Immortal Beloved" begs forgiveness, but it doesn't really deserve it.