Majestic Films/Roadshow Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 115 mins .
M15+ . PAL
Beethoven assumes Bust Pose #4
If there’s one thing that’s often said about Ludwig van Beethoven, it’s that he was a complete and utter bastard. An irascible, unfriendly and arrogant man, his scowl looms large on countless busts of his head found in gardens, music venues and on DVD reviewers’ dining tables. Make no mistake, if you had the man as a neighbour and had run out of milk, the last place you’d go for help would be Beethoven’s house. Of course, Beethoven was irritable for a reason - and no, not because he happened to be a musical genius who felt he could treat people like the musical imbeciles they were. The problem was both personal and devastating: Beethoven was going deaf.
That’s tragic enough for anyone, but for a composer it was enough to drive the man into deep depression and thoughts of suicide, something made very evident in a letter Beethoven wrote to his two brothers in 1802 while in the town of Heiligenstadt. A morose, despairing and dark document, it was found after Beethoven’s death and became known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.
“...it was impossible for me to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.’ Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.”
Though Beethoven was not quite deep enough immersed in self-pity to completely put a stop to his unashamed pride, the letter did sound very much like a suicide note. Thankfully, he managed to forge on and live for another 25 years, during which time he composed some of his greatest works - and also met a woman who would become known, also through letters found after his death, as Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” (you can read the letters via the link included on this page).
One of Beethoven's admirers... but is she his Immortal Beloved?
Debate has long raged about the identity of this mysterious woman, which is where Bernard Rose’s 1994 film comes in. Attempting to answer the question in a dramatic context, Rose’s screenplay takes many liberties and, ultimately, comes up with an answer that very few agree with. But that’s not the point, really, of Immortal Beloved. Instead, what Rose created was a rich, detailed picture of life in Beethoven’s time and company, liberally soundtracked by the great man’s music; the device of the “immortal beloved” is the thread by which the story is tied together, as well as performing a very important function - showing us that Beethoven did indeed have a passionate, caring side underneath all the scowling, arrogance and anger. But even that passion brings out extreme darkness in the composer, with devastating consequences.
As Beethoven, Gary Oldman is in his element; a chameleonic genius who was at the height of his craft when he made this film, Oldman does bring a little of his 1992 Dracula to the role of Beethoven - just a touch, but it’s there - but is otherwise completely convincing, and never less than compelling to watch. Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, who often struggles in English-language parts, is also superb here as Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s friend who has made it his mission to find out who the “immortal beloved” is that the composer has willed his estate to. And Isabella Rossellini is, not surprisingly, as compelling as always. Keep an eye out, too, for a brief appearance from none other than Barry Humphries…!
Beethoven tries out the first Piano Walkman.
Now a decade old and long overdue on DVD in Australia, Immortal Beloved is presented on DVD in its full theatrical glory at a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. And it’s a very decent transfer, too - though not by any means perfect. The main issue here is black level, which does seem to be way too far removed from actual black on certain shots. This may well have been the cinematographer’s intention, but it looks a little too extreme at times here to be an artistic decision, especially compared with the sumptuous look of the rest of the film. Fortunately, this affects only a handful of scenes; the rest of the movie looks utterly gorgeous, with plenty of detail and nicely handled colour. We’re not sure if this one is sourced from the same high definition transfer that Sony Pictures did a few years back, but we suspect probably not. No matter; very few will be disappointed.
The movie is encoded at a fairly high bitrate on a dual-layered disc, though it uses very little of the second layer. The layer change is superbly placed, and those not looking for it won’t realise it’s there even on the clunkiest of players.
Prepare to be blown away. One of the early movies to feature Dolby Digital 5.1 sound theatrically (though not in Australia), Immortal Beloved is a treat for the ears from start to finish. This is an incredibly immersive soundtrack, with the surround stage used intelligently for atmospheric effects of all kinds, the subwoofer cheerfully rumbling away when needed (and only when needed: modern-day sound mixers take note!) The music, expertly recorded in full surround throughout, sounds natural, spacious and involving, and dialogue is crisp and clear. An absolutely flawless soundtrack, this one’s a stunning achievement for 1994.
Note that while the DVD cover carries a prominent DTS logo on front and back and a listing for a DTS soundtrack in the specs, it’s not here. Exactly why is a mystery - there’s plenty of disc space and plenty of available MPEG bandwidth to carry one - but ultimately, the Dolby Digital track is so good that the absence of DTS barely raises an eyebrow.
The region 1 edition of this film - available there for a good five years now - was released by Columbia Tristar, who own the US rights. And as you might expect, the old “rights issues” have come into play once again for this local Roadshow version; all the extras on the US disc are missing here. That’s a big shame, but can be partly forgiven since this is a lower-priced Roadshow title (with a suggested retail of $25, it’ll certainly be found much cheaper in stores).
All that’s here is the film’s theatrical trailer, which is not in the best shape, to put it kindly.
Beautifully photographed by Peter Suschitzky and with the late, legendary Sir Georg Solti conducting the London Symphony Orchestra for the musical elements of the film, Immortal Beloved looks and sounds magnificent, and while its story may be as much fiction as fact, director Rose (who cut his teeth on music videos like Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s controversial Relax before moving into feature film with Paperhouse and one of the most genuinely scary horror movies ever made, Candyman) never asks the audience to suspend disbelief. There’s no need to; for two hours this film will transport you, whether you’re familiar with Ludwig’s music or not.