Copying Beethoven, 104 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas on 19 April 2007.


(This review appeared in the April 2007 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)

Copying Beethoven is a fictional film about Ludwig van Beethoven in the days leading up to the debut performance of his magnificent Ninth Symphony, in 1824. Like Beethoven himself, the film has its flaws, but it also has moments of exquisite beauty and brilliance.

Let’s deal with the good things first. There’s Ed Harris’ performance as Beethoven. Ed Harris? Sure, he was brilliant directing himself as Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000), and he almost stole the show in The Hours (Daldry, 2002). He’s powerful and emotional, struggling mightily against wig, false nose and ear trumpet, and wrestling with a sometimes clunky script. But when he conducts the Ninth, he makes you believe. It’s a great performance precisely because the role is such a stretch for Harris. He threw himself into the role with his typical intensity, learning to write music in Beethoven’s hand, and to conduct a symphony orchestra.

Another positive is, of course, the music, which we hear throughout the film. And there’s some very intelligent discussion about individual pieces, the development of Beethoven’s musical ideas, and the role he played in the transition from the Classical era to the Romantic. The climax of the film is the performance of part of the Ninth Symphony, conducted by Ed Harris as Beethoven and played on screen by the Kecskemet Symphony Orchestra with the Chorus of Kecskemet, Hungary. (What we actually hear is the 1996 Decca recording of Bernard Haitink conducting Amsterdam’s famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.) This 10-minute sequence is reason alone to see Copying Beethoven. The Symphony’s end is one of the most emotional musical moments I’ve seen on film.

Director Agnieszka Holland is a visual master, and Copying Beethoven is a feast for the eyes. Set in Vienna but shot on location in Budapest and other towns in Hungary, the film looks authentic, and the settings suitably moody and shabby. I loved the way most of the costumes are dirty, frayed, and old, rather than sumptuous and gorgeous, and that the wigs were often askew

But there are some problems with the film. The first is the way the writers have manipulated the facts, creating the fictional character of Anna Holtz, a music student who becomes Beethoven’s copyist. Anna is based on two male Austrian students who actually worked for Beethoven, and one female composer living in France – Lorenc Ferenz, who was apparently influenced by Beethoven’s music.

The writers (Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) say that creating this character enables us to enter the silent solitude of the latter years of Beethoven’s life. But Anna, played by the beautiful, if rather blank, Diane Kruger (Helen in Troy, Petersen, 2004) becomes the centre of the story. We see the troubles Anna has being accepted as a serious musical scholar, and composing something that Beethoven, her master, will accept without ridicule. We see her discomfort as Beethoven behaves like a slob and a grouch. We watch as she tries to make her way in a man’s world. All this takes the focus away from the character we are really interested in – Beethoven.

The other major problem is in some of the writing. Sometimes it becomes overblown: for example, Beethoven explains his approach this way:

‘Silence is the key. The silence in between the notes. When that silence envelopes, then your soul can sing.’

Ahem! And sometimes it jars: for example, when Anna complains, perhaps  anachronistically, of Beethoven: ‘He mooned me’. Just as well she’s fictional. If she were real, there’d have been a scandal.

Given that the film is called Copying Beethoven, I’d have liked to have learned more about the process of copying music. For example, how do they deal with the orchestration? How many copies have to be produced for the debut of a particular symphony, and how long does it take? What about mistakes? At the end of the film these things remain a mystery – as does, on the whole, Beethoven himself. Still, there’s always the music. The glorious music.

There  are more film reviews by Michele Asprey at