A musical nun, Anna (Diane Kruger), gets a job as a copyist for Ludwig van Beethoven (Ed Harris) but he’s a tough boss, owing to his messy lifestyle, unpleasant habits and tempestuous character. Let’s call it The Devil Plays Sonatas.
This 2006 film is very much in the mold of Amadeus. Both Viennese composers arrive on screen as fully formed geniuses with an apparently divinely-bestowed gift, and both films seek to explore their main characters’ flaws. But where Amadeus is a compelling melodrama focused on a largely fabricated rivalry with Salieri, the fictitious relationship at the core of Copying Beethoven is rather less engrossing.
While Ed Harris looks the part, he hams it up in a performance with about as much subtlety as Beethoven the dog. Anna slots into the role of a woman who becomes subservient to a great male genius like Phantom Thread and Girl With a Pearl Earring, while developing her own music talents, demanding to be taken seriously as a woman. Yet she never really questions her place as Beethoven the human’s copyist-cum-cleaner-cum-nurse, and her relationship with boyfriend Martin (Matthew Goode) is about as developed as Beethoven’s 10th Symphony.
The one thing it has over Amadeus is more focus on musical detail, with scenes of composition, discussion of keys and melodies and a ten minute version of the Ninth Symphony which is the best scene in the film. For obvious reasons it can’t include the whole thing, but the scene of its premiere is well constructed as Anna supports Beethoven to conduct while overcoming his (selective) deafness.
When making a film about a great artist there’s always a risk of paling in comparison to their work, but unfortunately Copying Beethoven would fall flat even if it was about Tracey Emin.