“Immortal Beloved” attempts to travel the “Citizen Kane” route of using a death’s door clue left by a difficult great man to penetrate his secret self. The man in question here is Ludwig van Beethoven, and the result is less than compelling due to the fragmentary telling of the story, offputting nature of the main character and failure of the filmmakers to make their investigation seem of any particular consequence. Columbia may have hoped that “Amadeus”-like lightning would strike twice for this heavy classical goulash, but domestic audiences aren’t likely to belly up in any sizable numbers. Offshore prospects would appear brighter.
The Rosebud here is a letter from Beethoven found soon after his death addressed to an unnamed Immortal Beloved in which he wrote, among other things, that “I can live only completely with you or not at all.” As the brilliant composer never married and was not known to have had any deep romantic attachments toward the end of his life,despite countless earlier affairs, the identity of his beloved has stumped all biographers over the years.
With a confidence born of dramatic exigency, however, British writer/director Bernard Rose purports to have solved the mystery at long last. Taking a big step in ambition from his last picture, the crafty thriller “Candyman,” Rose sets up an investigatory structure full of flashbacks, multiple narrators and jumps through time that seems more complicated than it is. Crucially, however, he fails to drum up much suspense or even interest in the solution to the puzzle, poking a hole in his own balloon even before he fills it with air to try to make it fly.
Beginning with the hero’s death in 1827 and his lavish funeral, film follows the travels throughout Middle Europe of Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), Beethoven’s loyal factotum, as he pursues all his leads in the Immortal Beloved mystery. He first visits a hotel in Karlsbad where he knows his boss (played by Gary Oldman) had an assignation many years before. This lands him an interview with the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golino), who dramatically claims to have been Beethoven’s great love.
Rose uses flashback glimpses of this romance to illustrate how, even at an early age, the composer’s encroaching deafness made him even more arrogant, rude and impossible to other people than he already was, and how he felt and cavalierly behaved as if the usual proprieties didn’t apply to him. Also sketched is his destructive relationship with his youngest brother and the latter’s peasant wife, Johanna (Johanna Ter Steege), which was to have an unpleasant aftermath.
Another line of inquiry takes Schindler to Hungary, where the Countess Anna Marie Erdody (Isabella Rossellini) represents his greatest hope of finding the true Immortal Beloved. Over drinks at an inn, she tells of her great love affair with the composer, which began when she rescued him from the stage when his utter deafness resulted in a conducting fiasco before a glittering audience and endured through Napoleon’s attack on her palatial estate and the death of one of her children.
Longest digression involves the stubborn Beethoven’s taking over of the rearing of his young nephew Karl for five years, during which he composed nothing, instead vainly trying to make the boy a piano prodigy. This effort ends in tragedy for all concerned, and the subplot has the effect of exposing the story’s fundamental weakness: The search for Beethoven’s secret love is not a sufficiently strong premise upon which to base an entire film, thus requiring offshoots and tangents to fill out the running time.
At the same time, Beethoven’s brusque, high-handed, irrational personality is never made either palatable or accessible. Granted, he is given the dual excuses of genius and deafness to set him apart from the rest of humanity, but neither Rose nor Oldman provide the necessary opening into his character that would give an audience a handle on him, even as a coldly formidable protagonist. Oldman strikes a lot of commanding poses, both as maestro and lover, but a cohesive, full-bodied characterization never emerges.
Musical climax comes with the rapturously received premiere of the Ninth Symphony, whereupon, in a sort of sub-Ken Russell intergalactic orgasm, Beethoven is literally positioned as a star in the firmament. Pic then presents a solution to the mystery that seems as plausible as any other it might have offered, although it can scarcely be one that no one else has proposed over the past 165 years.
Shot mostly around Prague, Icon production has a polished, early 19th-century look thanks to the colorful locations, Jiri Hlupy’s sumptuous production design, Maurizio Millenotti’s lavish costumes and Peter Suschitzky’s lustrous lensing. Musical side is impeccably handled by Sir Georg Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra, whose performances of assorted Beethoven works dominate the soundtrack.
An interesting technical attempt is made to render a subjective impression of the composer’s deafness, in which barely detectable ambient sounds are overwhelmed by a pervasive low din. But even this lends more of an impression of what was not in Beethoven’s head than what was.