Beethoven unplugged

The flawed but passionate Immortal Beloved brings us inside the mind of an artist

The star, who I've despised for some time, deserves much of the credit for making the film work. Sometimes a movie star can become so enamored with the accessories of a Method-constructed part--the diction and accent, the mannerisms, the makeup and costumes--that he forgets how to draw on his own emotion to pull everything together. He constructs a shell convincingly, then doesn't fill it with anything. That's been Oldman's problem, more often than not: as an actor, he was all prizes and no Crackerjacks. Yet he's brilliant as Beethoven--tragic, scary, loathsome, and touching.

Oldman's face is suffused with pain and joy, yet you can't read into it deeply because his emotions are so idiosyncratic. His inner turmoil is so obvious and affecting that it's hard to resist being drawn to him, yet there's also a core of unnamed rage inside him that pushes people away. This Beethoven is a human being, but the forces that drive him remain a mystery.

Many sorrows pass through Beethoven's warped mind--busted relationships, financial troubles, even political backbiting and bloody war--and they emerge transformed into art. But the film is too smart to make a simple equation of this: it never says, "Here's the Fifth Symphony, which was inspired by the horrifying advance of Napoleon's troops." It instead allows Beethoven's art to mirror and capture the events he witnessed and endured--vividly but imprecisely. Like emotional X-rays, the symphonies tell us what's going on inside him, but they never presume to tell the whole story. The film is less a biography than a wild, colorful ode, full of dramatic flourishes and unexpected chord changes and bizarre, sometimes laughable inventions. It's like a piece of music: variations on a life.

Immortal Beloved. Columbia. Gary Oldman, Isabella Rossellini, Valeria Golino, Johanna Ter Steege. Written and Directed by Bernard Rose. Opens January 6.

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