A strong cast and realistic production values work just fine when Beethoven’s music is allowed to take center stage, but “Eroica” is too often saddled with dialogue straight out of Classical Music 101. Despite playing a tad fast and loose with history, the neat conceit of a day in the life of Ludwig Van — the day of the first private play-through of his revolutionary Symphony No. 3 — still makes potent viewing. However, with more coin, 35mm lensing and several dialogue rewrites, this DV-shot BBC telefilm could have realized its potential, and gone beyond tube and specialized showings.
Last attempt to do something cinematic with the ornery genius was “Immortal Beloved” (1994), an ambitious film a clef that performed in a minor key at the box office. “Eroica” aims lower and lets the music speak for itself, with the entire work heard almost uninterrupted and dialogue largely confined to the rests between the four movements.
The day is June 9, 1804, at a palace in Vienna where Beethoven’s patron, sappy Prince Lobkowitz (Jack Davenport), has assembled a full orchestra. In rapid character sketches, individual musicians are shown scrambling to make the engagement, servants work away in the background, and Lobkowitz, with his airhead, Francophile wife, Marie (Fenella Woolgar), greets his elder cousin, Count Dietrichstein (Tim Piggott-Smith), from Prague.
Meanwhile, Beethoven (Ian Hart) walks to the palace with his young apprentice, Ferdinand Reis (Leo Bill), perpetual butt of his grouchy demeanor. Moving back and forth between all the characters, Nick Dear’s script starts as it means to continue, with expository-heavy dialogue: The Viennese have held off the advance of Napoleon by signing a peace treaty; outside Austria, Europe is gripped by revolutionary fervor; and Beethoven is an already established (but German and lower-middle class) composer who sympathizes with Napoleon’s republican aims.
The viewer also knows Beethoven’s latest symphony is going to surprise its aristocratic listeners, because characters keep saying so. “I’ve taken a new path,” says Ludwig Van. Murmurs the copyist, “I’ve never seen anything like it: it may not be music at all.”
Beethoven, natch, enters through the main door, not the servant’s entrance: “We’re artists. We go in the front,” he tells the nervous Reis.
However, at the 15-minute mark, as the orchestra tentatively starts playing, “Eroica” magically transforms into another movie. Aided by Barry Ackroyd’s nimble, handheld lensing and Joe Walker’s agile cutting, music, ideas and personalities blend as one, with expressions on the faces of the players and protags transforming the picture into a kind of character ballet.
A particularly magical moment comes during the first movement as two elegant women, Countess Josephine (Claire Skinner) and Countess Therese (Lucy Akhurst), silently enter. Only much later is Josephine’s significance fully explained.
While the characters continue to speak like handbooks in the pauses between the movements, their real development takes place when Dear’s didactic dialogue stops. Piggott-Smith is especially good as the stiff, military-like Dietrichstein, who verbally spars with the young composer while secretly acknowledging his talent. Skinner brings a quiet, firm grace to Josephine; and Frank Finlay is aces in a deus ex machina appearance, prior to the finale, that’s an extremely clever, and apposite, invention.
However, it’s Hart’s central perf that holds the whole caboodle together. Looking passably like the real Ludwig Van, and oozing body language, Hart plays the cantankerous cleffer with a volatile mixture of intensity, arrogance and quicksilver charm. Initially sitting hunched in his chair while the other listeners stand or walk around, the thesp summons a range of facial expressions that limn a character who knows he’s making history but is nervous all the same.
Performance by the Orchestre Revolutionaire & Romantique, on period instruments and under the offscreen baton of John Eliot Gardiner, is tops, cleverly conveying the feeling of a first play-through without mangling the music. Actors blend seamlessly with real musicians, and Andrea Galer’s costumes are both natural and eye-catching. Sound quality is sharp, accentuating the music’s “revolutionary” character, and DigiBeta quality is acceptable projected on a bigscreen.