Early in "Copying Beethoven," when the great composer is about to enter a room, one intimidated character can't take it. "Beethoven's coming!" You could say the same about the man playing Ludwig van Beethoven: "It's Ed Harris. Duck!"
Built like an old college wrestler, Harris saunters through this toasty little piece of biographical fiction in love with the part's fixins'. Every lock of the character's fantastic gray hair seems to move at Harris's will (in that sense, Beethoven's the Beyoncé of the 19th century). And the composer's deafness is an occasion to shout the darnedest things ("I have to pee, my dear"). This is indeed 1824 Vienna, but when a man's got to go. . . . And from an acting standpoint, go Harris does, without shame and, on one occasion, without clothes.
Directed by the estimable Agnieszka Holland, the film tells the invented story of Beethoven's final year and his relationship with Anna Holz (Diane Kruger) , a willful music student hired to help him finish copying the "Ninth Symphony." The woman didn't exist, but neither, presumably, did much of the dialogue. Take Beethoven's reaction to some of Anna's own compositions: "You've invented a new genre -- 'Fartissimo.' "
After Anna starts editing the maestro's music, we know "Copying Beethoven" is all about taking liberties. Besides, the film is too busy equating religious fervor with musical genius to bother nailing down every historical detail.
Holland is no stranger to informal period dramas, having tackled the Holocaust in "Europa Europa," Rimbaud and Verlaine in "Total Eclipse," and Henry James in "Washington Square." She's also familiar with the ways of Ed Harris, having guided him to one of his best performances as a priest suffering a spiritual breakdown in "The Third Miracle." And most of her work contains a related philosophical strain.
Indeed, "Copying Beethoven" is the sort of movie where no one talks about politics, sports, or the weather. Everyone thinks and speaks in platitudes and positions. The film itself is concerned with higher principles of artistic achievement: Yes, it's good, but would God like it? The modest inspiration in Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson's script is its suggestion that there's a little of God in everyone. OK, there's a lot in Beethoven: "God whispers into some men's ears," exclaims the maestro. "He shouts into mine!" Anna has the tact not to remind him that his hearing, after all, is impaired.
For a while, it seems these two will never really get to know each other. But the performance sequence of Beethoven's Ninth bonds them. Within the intimate space of the symphony hall, the film's drained look turns into something radiant. Anna talks some confidence into her nervous boss, and in one tracking shot he blossoms from insecure to cocky. Anna cues him, the piece begins, and, on the conductor's stand, the virile actor and the virtuoso composer thrillingly converge.
It's an exuberant passage. Harris maniacally sways to every note. Since we know Beethoven can't hear well, the rapture on Harris's face suggests he's seized with something divine (God's shouts) -- although, at times, it looks like he's having a heart attack and a hot flash simultaneously with his eyes shut tight, then bulged, nostrils flared, his mouth hanging open, his wig gone wild.
As Anna guides Beethoven, Harris's body moves fluidly in time with Kruger's. This is the only scene in the whole picture that really speaks to Holland. She exalts the music, and the music exalts her filmmaking. The director and her editor, Alex Mackie , even throw in shots of the excited choir, including one of a singer so eager to sing this piece that she almost jumps the gun. (She knows it's that good.) The camera spins and quakes, and when the sequence is over, the movie should be, too. But it continues long enough for what preceded it to seem like foreplay and for what follows to feel like anticlimax.