I simply love Ed Harris, and I think he’s one of the few people — no one else comes immediately to mind — who could have played this role and not made a fool of himself. Harris proved in Pollock his ability to inhabit the skin of a familiar artist, meeting and exceeding the expectations audience members have of a familiar figure, and infusing his character with an organic intensity which was deep and true. He dishes out another great performance in Copying Beethoven, although he is held back by the shortcomings of the film’s script and his co-star, Diane Kruger.
I’d rather not to be too hard on Ms. Kruger. She is, first of all, very beautiful, with an equal mix of stern and fair — qualities which landed her the role of Helen in Troy (where, unlike her lover, Orlando Bloom’s Paris, she was well-cast). In Copying Beethoven, she plays Anna Holtz, the (this is entirely fictional) copyist and hopeful composer who must help Beethoven prepare the 9th Symphony, as well as put up with his moodiness, personal attacks, and rapturous philosophizing. Her head-to-head scenes with Beethoven are fine, as she meets his fiery rebukes and doesn’t allow Ed Harris to chew her to pieces (the rest of the scene doesn’t fair too well). She also handles the unavoidable sexual tension between herself and Harris’ Beethoven well — namely in that they doesn’t overdo it. But anytime the character demands more weight, and an existential struggle is called for, she is not able to rise to the demands. The performance is by no means a complete failure, and I would be inclined to label it as “competent, if uninspired,” except for the key scene in which she helps Beethoven by “conducting” the 9th, acting as a cue for the deaf composer. As she flails and floats her arms about, with an expectant, furrowed expression upon her face, she — sadly — looks like a complete fool. Indeed, it’s painful to watch.
The overarching form of the script’s narrative is serviceable, but its language, especially when calling upon Harris to make an “important” speech about the divinity of music, is dismal. There is nothing unexpected or especially insightful to be found here, and the numerous scenes in which Beethoven shares his thoughts on the creative process are more irritating than inspirational. Harris does much better when left to his own devices, without a scripted speech, dashing around his messy apartment and infusing the composer’s bursts of creative brilliance with a physicality that says more about the act of creation than any of his rhetorical flourishes. Also lacking are the two main characters: Beethoven’s nephew, Karl, played very poorly by Joe Anderson, and Anna’s boyfriend, Martin, who are meant to add dramatic tension to the story, but mostly just spoil it.
The best thing about this movie is Beethoven’s music, which plays throughout. After watching Copying Beethoven, I am more convinced than ever that the 9th Symphony is the best thing I have ever heard, and though I left the theater disappointed on the whole, I was grateful for having spent two hours listening to some of the finest music ever created.