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To the memory of an angel ...
on 28 March 2015
What a surprise this film is! My impulse is almost to cheer it, it so exceeds expectations of this kind of biopic. To be sure, the female copyist brought in for the Ninth Symphony is an invented figure, but the gambit pays off. Agnieszka Holland made a very good film about an extraordinary traversal of the Second World War, Europa Europa, so you know she can handle a large canvas; also her telling of the Verlaine and Rimbaud story showed her digging into intimacy with a very non-mainstream frankness. Here she does not suggest Beethoven fell in love with the copyist Anna Holtz, but more that she was a kind of angel who somehow dovetailed with music in his mind like Saint Cecilia herself. His passion seems to be directed more at his nephew Karl, who was somewhat profligate and exploited Beethoven's love for him. This is shown realistically, and both Diane Kruger and Joe Anderson are brilliantly cast in these twin roles. As an indication of the film's underlying generosity, Holland shows Karl at the stupendous first performance of the Ninth Symphony, visibly moved by the beautiful last section for the solo vocal quartet, tears streaming down his face. There is something sublime about this, and the power of the music to touch the soul is suggested without tackiness thanks to the remarkable cinematography and a host of other aspects, particularly the gliding between Beethoven and Holtz in a counterpoint to the music itself.
The success of the film, however, really rests on Ed Harris's monolithic shoulders. Generally it is impossible for an actor to satisfy our imagining of what one of the great figures of history was like, and they don't come any greater than Beethoven ... but Ed Harris is quite extraordinary. First he looks very like the composer; but more than this, he convinces you that Beethoven would have been very like this, there is such a sense of depth behind what he says, of ineffable depth behind the irascible exterior, of a tender man of great sensitivity behind the sometimes crude front, of someone who couldn't be contained by politeness. To attempt consciously to do this could so easily have been hammy, but not with Harris, who pulls off something completely amazing. He was very good four years earlier as a poet in The Hours, but here he convinces just as much in a much harder role to bring off. As he rages and expands, sometimes shirtless, he looks like a Rodin sculpture made flesh, and the size of his gestures, his mind, his vision, is constantly reinforced by every shot of him. I couldn't help feeling here that a woman's perspective paid dividends in an eye which seemed to caress him as one might a fearsome lion. The look of the interiors is also wonderful, never too 'fixed'-looking, and filmed in close-up with a fairly mobile camera; in this Holland seems to have found an analogy to the passion and drive of the music. I was struck by how much Beethoven talked about God; I don't know whether he was overtly religious, but his music could only come from someone who was intensely spiritual.