Bernard Rose’s 1994 biographical film Immortal Beloved, about Austrian composer Ludwig van Beethoven, is packed with fanciful conspiracy theories and untruths. Despite this, it is so powerfully dominated by Gary Oldman’s superb and fiery lead performance that it is difficult to mind too much. Along with a number of other superb actors delivering great work, Oldman transcends the picture with a tremendous and career-defining achievement. It was worthy of an Oscar; he was not even nominated.
In the aftermath of Beethoven’s death, secretary Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé) uncovers a new will that leaves the composer’s estate to his “immortal beloved”. Desperate to discover the identity of this unknown beneficiary, Schindler travels to one past love after another to learn of Beethoven’s past and personal life.
What responsibility does a biographical picture have towards factual accuracy? After all, films such as Immortal Beloved are openly works of fiction: there is a screenplay being performed by actors, and no claim to being a documentary. At the same time, how much do audiences expect their “based on a true story” viewing experiences to authentically relate the facts? Immortal Beloved suggests that Beethoven’s widely reported misogyny was actually the result of a spurned love affair, and attempts to re-imagine a talented but difficult man as a sweeping romantic figure. For the general viewer that may suffice. For the dedicated Beethoven enthusiast, it is remarkably silly stuff.
While there is some inventiveness in Rose’s approach – to forensically examine his protagonist via flashbacks – there remains a strong sense that the film would have done better with a more conventional and linear approach. In manufacturing a romantic mystery, Rose shifts away from simply relating Beethoven’s life and career. to the audience. Sometimes that is honestly all the viewers want.
Weak foundations, then, but it is surprising just how powerful a film is built on top of them. I have already mention the enormous strength of Oldman’s performance. It is widely supported by others. Jeroen Krabbé is sympathetic and sensitive as Schindler, offering a stark contrast to his tormented and angry client. Isabella Rosselini is typically excellent as Anna Marie, one of several candidates to be Beethoven’s mysterious ‘immortal beloved’.
The film’s soundtrack is smartly and effectively peppered with the composer’s own works, and the debut of his Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”) forms an excellent basis for the film’s climax. The costume design – always a highlight of a good period drama – is by Maurizio Millenotti, and is generally impressive. In the end, however, it is the script that lets the side down. At its best, Immortal Beloved reminds one of Miloš Forman’s excellent 1984 drama Amadeus, which did for Mozart what this film attempts to do for Beethoven. That film, also heavily fictionalised, succeeds much more ably in its goal than Bernard Rose does here. Quality dressings can distract from, but never disguise, a weak body.