August 2000

Immortal Beloved
Reviewed by Greg Weaver
DVD Format

Overall Enjoyment: *****
Picture Quality: ****
Sound Quality: ****
Packaged Extras: ***

Starring Gary Oldman, Jeroen Krabbe, Isabella Rossellini, Valeria Golino, Johanna Ter Steege

Directed by Bernard Rose

Theatrical Release: 1994
DVD Release: 1999
Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital Surround
Widescreen (Anamorphic)

If you haven’t seen this film yet, run out right now and get it. I’m not kidding! Shut the computer off immediately and go rent this movie. This is one absolute labor of love, acted and directed with a passion you will rarely find in the bulk of today’s big budget dramas. The film offers a very personal view of the private life, tribulations and motivations of one of the most influential composers in history, Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Immortal Beloved perfectly unites the mystique of Beethoven as an individual with the majesty of Beethoven as a musician. The film explores both his music and the intriguing riddle that surrounds the mysterious, but very real letter found among the deceased Maestro’s papers. The film is constructed around the discovery of this unusual letter, known as the "Immortal Beloved" document. It is the only love letter that Beethoven is ever known to have written. The letter proclaims the depth of his undying love for a woman whom he never names. To this day scholars still cannot say with any certainty for whom the letter was intended. This sterling small film, written and directed by Bernard Rose, blends known fact with speculative circumstance in an attempt to solve this puzzling and compelling enigma.

Producer Bruce Davey tells of his first pitch meeting with Director Bernard Rose when the project was still in development and when the script had yet to be written. Davey was completely impressed by Rose, recalling that Rose had rehearsed the movie so well in his mind that the first draft of the script was developed in just weeks. This film is clearly the product of people who have both a deep appreciation and love for this great Romantic composer. This fiery film succeeds on every level.

As a period piece, it is simply gorgeous. Shot entirely on location in historic Prague and the Czech Republic, the film is filled with beautiful locations. The art direction and the costumes are so rich and detailed that you are virtually swept back to the early 1800s. Visually, it is lush and complete.

With a truly international cast, the performances of the leading characters are compelling and absorbing. The versatile Gary Oldman as Beethoven is simply superb. The angst and torture that he is able to evoke as this stirring historical figure is heart felt, even for such an accomplished performer. A musician himself, some viewers may be surprised to learn that he was actually playing the piano in many of his scenes. Rose felt it integral to the believability of the plot to show Oldman really playing to render the illusion completely convincing.

Valeria Golina portrays the beautiful Contessa Giulietta Guicciardi, an early and frustrating love interest of the Maestro. Jeroen Krabbe is consummate and highly moving as Beethoven’s long time assistant and secretary, Anton Schindler, who constantly stands by him despite humiliation and abuse at every turn. He is shown as having been instrumental in the attempt to resolve the composer’s final enigma -- to discover the identity of the Immortal Beloved. Isabella Rossellini, with her usual engaging style and grace, gives us Lady Anna Marie Erdody, one of Ludwig’s long time romantic interests. Finally, Johanna Ter Steege brings to life Johanna Reiss, who marries Ludwig’s brother Carl, with remarkable depth and compassion.

Although an answer to the complex and centuries-old mystery has never been agreed upon, its story has never been told in such a captivating and engrossing manner. This small, virtually unseen film (at least in the US) presents us with very believable possibilities as to the loves of the Maestro, and with at least one man’s views about the possible answers. At the same time, the film portrays Beethoven’s tumultuous struggle with his own deafness and his possible motivations. The entire work is infused with love and respect for the man and his legacy, and is made all the more engaging by the skillful interweaving of the powerful and evocative works of this musical pioneer, all conducted by the inimitable late Sir George Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra.

In one of the film’s more powerful scenes, we view Schindler moved to tears as Beethoven shares what was on his mind when he wrote the Kreutzer Violin Sonata. His recounting of what it revealed to him of the genius of the composer and the profundity of its influence on his personal discovery is unforgettable. Toward the end of the film, we are privileged to witness and revel in the celebration that is the "Ode to Joy," the fourth movement of the great Ninth Symphony and arguably one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

Released in the Widescreen format, this film is not quite as visually stirring as it is emotionally haunting. While the transfer is not the best I’ve seen, it is quite good and never terribly distracting. Some aging and deterioration is noticeable to the print used for the transfer.

The sound is offered in both Dolby Surround and Digital so be sure to select the digital track if you have the capability before you hit play. The score is nearly flawlessly woven into the soundtrack and it never overwhelms the dialogue. The music is nearly as instrumental in the telling of the tale as is the dialogue.

Packaged extras include the requisite Audio Set Up, Subtitles and Scene Selections. The Special Features include an audio commentary from the director, a delightful and informative thirty-minute documentary, an eight-minute featurette, the theatrical trailer and the talent files.

This is a powerful telling of an equally powerful tale. Not since Milos Foreman’s enthusiastic recounting of the life of Mozart with his award-winning Amadeus in 1984 has a film attempted, let alone succeeded on such a level, to uncover the soul behind a talent as enormous and influential as this innovative and pivotal composer. If you love classical music, especially the work of Beethoven, you are bound to be moved. If you aren’t that sure about the classics, this just may be the vehicle that will make it all a bit more accessible and understandable. Either way, this is one under recognized film that is not to be missed. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

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