Entering a lavish, high-ceilinged drawing room, Ludwig vanBeethoven (Gary Oldman) gazes around warily, making sure no one is there to discover his dreadful secret. He sits down at the piano and then, slowly, like a child laying his head upon a pillow, he brings the side of his face to rest upon the instrument. As the familiar, plaintive arpeggios of the ”Moonlight Sonata” come rippling forth, that cocked head appears faintly absurd — he looks like a man trying to give a concert and tune the piano at the same time — but, of course, there’s nothing funny about it: It’s the only way he can hear the notes. The mournful beauty of the music echoes the yearning in Beethoven’s eyes.
Immortal Beloved, Bernard Rose’s robust and passionately schlocky biographical melodrama, milks Beethoven’s deafness for its full measure of morbid romanticism. The ultimate romantic is one who dreams of a love that’s forever denied him, and Beethoven’s case carried a particularly desperate sting, since, by the end of his life, he was sealed off from experiencing the joy of his own music — from connecting with the joy it brought to others. His agony was the flip side of his ecstasy.
Told in flashback, Immortal Beloved is structured as a Citizen Kane-like detective story, with Beethoven’s secretary (Jeroen Krabbé) seeking out the identity of the late composer’s ”immortal beloved,” the mysterious object of adoration to whom he left his estate. As presented, Beethoven’s relationship with this muse has almost no basis in historical fact, and the affair is dramatized in such a sketchy way that it accumulates little romantic force. What does have force is the vision of Beethoven as a man equally driven by demons and angels.
At the beginning of the movie, we see him trashing a hotel room like some 19th-century rock star. It’s a grabber of a scene, and enough to make you wonder why Ken Russell never bothered turning Beethoven’s life into one of his hormonal-kitsch extravaganzas. Still, the baroque torment of it all fed my expectation that Oldman would seize this role as an opportunity to revel in bug-eyed masochism. It turns out that playing the great Ludwig Van has coaxed a new modesty out of Oldman. His Beethoven, for all his brutish passion, is trapped in sadness, in the experience of a sublimity he can’t locate in life. Oldman does wonders with his thin, rueful lips, which twitch into a frown of despair, even as his eyes stare off into the mystical ether. This is a powerful and restrained performance, with moments of impotent fury, like the scene in which Beethoven performs a piano concerto and so throws off the orchestra with his deaf conducting that the ensemble degenerates into chaos.
Movie biographies of great composers are almost always borderline camp, because the connections they draw between the composer’s art and life (this tragedy explains that symphony, and so on) make them seem like glorified music-appreciation classes. Immortal Beloved has some of this same cheesy literal-mindedness. Except that in Beethoven’s case there’s justification for it, since his music, which we hear almost constantly on the soundtrack, is an ongoing navigation between sweetness and force, anxiety and exaltation, heavenly ardor and earthly resolve. It’s the first — and greatest — dramatization in Western art of the tempestuous modern mind. As biography, Immortal Beloved is trashy and fraudulent, yet as an impressionistic riff on Beethoven’s temperament, his spirit, it exerts an irresistible pull. The most moving scene is also the most outlandish: the maestro’s appearance on stage during the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, during which he recalls the childhood events — principally, his escape from an abusive father — that, according to the film, inspired the ”Ode to Joy.” A shot of the young Beethoven lying nearly naked in a pond, his body merging with the stars, may be a cornball fancy, but it will do fine as an evocation of an artist who was able to hold the cosmos between two deaf ears.