Agnieszka Holland’s Copying Beethoven (2006) is one of those films that got away—one of those films that never makes it out of the major cities (usually because audiences stayed away in droves) and drifts into complete obscurity without ever being seen. It’s harder to understand in the case of a film with the pedigree of this one: a name director and a respected—and bankable—star. On the other hand, Copying Beethoven is a period-piece biopic, and that’s rarely good news at the box office. The whole biopic genre is much disdained, despite the fact that it’s one that contains some pretty impressive films. Copying Beethoven may not be one of the finest examples of the form, but it’s better than several well known ones, including the frankly dismal Immortal Beloved, another Beethoven biopic made 12 years earlier. Holland’s film—whatever its flaws—manages something rare in composer biographies: It actually has a feel for the music at hand. The only films of this sort that evidence a greater feel are the composer biographies made by Ken Russell in the 1970s. Indeed, the specter of Russell’s work hangs pretty heavily over the entire film.
The use of a small chunk of the composer’s life rather than attempting to cram the whole thing into two hours is very Russell-esque, and the film’s central set piece—the first performance of the Ninth Symphony—is a coup of musical filmmaking that owes much to the Tchaikovsky piano concerto in Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970), as well as the composition fantasy in his Mahler (1974). Holland’s sequence is a worthy addition—intense, beautifully done, moving and conveying a genuine sense of the music. But it comes with one huge problem—it arrives at about the one-hour mark, and Holland doesn’t have anything to top it as the film plays on. There is still some good stuff, and Ed Harris’ portrayal of Beethoven is fascinating throughout, but the film has nonetheless reached its dramatic peak long before it ends. Still, there’s enough to keep the interest going, and that one sequence—that one lengthy, beautiful sequence where every aspect of the film is at Holland’s command—raises the entire film to a level that many better films never dream of attaining. For this truly extraordinary stretch of film alone, Copying Beethoven is an essential.