Ludwig van Beethoven is certainly one of the most influential composers in the history of music. Not only is his work recognizable to the masses two hundred years after he composed it, but it remains brilliantly intricate in its complexities, a feat for a composer of any era. But in addition to his music, Beethoven also left behind a mystery that researchers and historians have puzzled over since his death, and it forms the premise for the 1994 Beethoven biopic, 'Immortal Beloved.'
When Beethoven died in 1827, it was discovered that he left all of his possessions to a woman he declared only as his "immortal beloved." Although the identity of the woman has never been determined, the film treats mystery of the unknown woman as a puzzle to be solved by composer's lifelong secretary, a biographer named Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe). In an attempt to accomplish the impossible, Schindler begins interviewing the many women Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman) had been involved with over the course of his life. The resulting story is told through flashbacks to the German master composer's life -- we see his budding reclusiveness and stubbornness, his destructive relationships with his brothers (Christopher Fulford and Gerard Horan), and his attempts to satisfy a public that hates him personally, but adores his music.
The critical response to 'Immortal Beloved' upon its original release was split down the middle -- some enjoyed its exploration of a flawed genius's life, while others called its intentions (and its facts) into question. Almost all critics, however, seemed to agree that the 1984 Mozart film 'Amadeus' was superior. Personally, I enjoy 'Immortal Beloved' far more than 'Amadeus' simply because it depicts a man struggling with his own limitations, rather than a man spoiled by his riches. While 'Amadeus' crafted Mozart into the classical-era equivalent of a pompous Rock n' Roll star, 'Immortal Beloved' makes Beethoven into a composer's Willy Loman ("Death of a Salesman") -- a man entangled by tragedy who's unable to get a foothold as his life spirals out of control.
Writer/director Bernard Rose has made no secret of the fact that he used the central mystery of the film as a tool to lull less-accepting mainsteam audiences into exploring Beethoven and his music, and it's definitely an effective tactic -- I found myself caught up in the flashbacks without initially realizing I was being taken on a tour of the 19th century, its politics, society, and artistry.
Even more intriguingly, Rose infuses 'Immortal Beloved' with moments that demonstrate the way an artist's pain can bleed into his work. While of course its impossible to know what Beethoven was thinking when he wrote his masterpieces, the film connects each song to a key moment in his life and makes a persuasive case for the inspiration of many familiar Beethoven compositions.
But more than anything, it's Gary Oldman's performance in this film that wins me over every time -- even in scenes without dialogue, his expressive eyes speak volumes. Playing Beethoven as an anti-hero who was misunderstood by everyone who ever knew him, Oldman never relies on the composer's genius to justify his actions. Instead, he presents Beethoven as a layered and complex man who just couldn't escape his anger and inner torment.
To be fair, there are moments when the film drags, and there are some clear problems with historical accuracy. Still, for my money, the good more than makes up for the bad. The music alone is a huge selling point of the film, and even after repeated viewings, I just can't get over how well the film grounds each composition into Beethoven's life and loves.
Although 'Immortal Beloved' has drawn mixed reactions from critics and fans over the years, it remains a personal favorite of mine for its richly layered portrayal of a classical genius. I recommend you give the film a try and decide for yourself.
Presented in 1080p using the MPEG-2 codec, 'Immortal Beloved' looks quite striking despite the fact that it was made over a decade ago. Colors are (intentionally) washed out during scenes focused on Schindler's investigation, but they come to life in the flashbacks to Beethoven's earlier life. Watch particularly as Beethoven courts Guilietta in the gardens of her mansion -- reds and greens jump off the screen against the vivid blues of the sky. Skintones are dead-on, textures are clean, and fine object detail is excellent. Scribbled handwriting, notes on parchment, and the quills on a feather pen are crisp and background elements are usually sharp. The film's print is in great condition with a light grain overtop the image, and the transfer isn't marred by any obtrusive video noise or crush issues.
The only problems I found were relatively minor. Black levels are consistently deep, but there are a handful of instances (mostly during the nighttime shots in the "Ode to Joy" flashbacks to Beethoven's mid-morning childhood escape) when the blackest areas are merely dark gray. Similarly, contrast levels are usually amazing, but fail to hold up in a few instances (most noticeably when Beethoven's true love finally reads his letter at the end of the film). Skip to the beginning of chapter sixteen and you'll instantly see the problem overtop the woman's shoulders on the wall -- the contrast flutters (an effect akin to watching older projection equipment in a theater) and the picture's vibrancy wavers as a result.
With that being said, the overall picture quality ranks among the more remarkable catalogue titles I've seen on either next-gen format, and looks much better than its standard DVD. I can confidently say this transfer will make fans of the film extremely happy with this release.
'Immortal Beloved' features a lush Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix (48 kHz / variable 3.0 Mbps) that doesn't disappoint. Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized and there's a realistic ambiance weaved throughout the soundscape that brings 19th century Germany to life. The rendered acoustics are particularly notable as careful attention has clearly been paid to the broad rooms and environmental expanses throughout the film. Each channel is used to its potential and the soundfield is consistently immersive.
Even more impressively, Beethoven's famed deafness is convincingly portrayed -- sound literally implodes from the soundscape, the channels dampen with his heart beat, and the rear speakers ring at various pitches. This effect increases as Beethoven ages, but never loses its effectiveness or believability. Its continuous presence and adaptability is a testament to the film's top notch sound design.
But what about the music? From the opening symphonic volley of the "5th Symphony" to the thematic crescendo of the "7th Symphony," the dynamics and resonance of each classical selection sound suitably amazing. Listen to the quiet interplay of treble tones in "Fur Elise" or the way each note echoes in the piano hall during "Moonlight Sonata" -- both sound eloquent in their own right and are reproduced with technical assurance despite their softness. Now listen to the boisterous explosion of sound when Ludwig fights with his brother ("Pastoral" in the "6th Symphony) or the graceful flights of operatic fancy amidst the funeral ("Missa Solemnis in D Major") -- the strings are stable, the bass lines are boomy, and the horns and choral voices reverberate through the channels.
Simply put, this TrueHD mix is the best part of this release and 'Immortal Beloved' has never sounded better.
Porting over all of the major extras from the 1999 Special Edition DVD, the supplements package for this Blu-ray edition of 'Immortal Beloved' is far from over-stuffed, but it should still satisy most fans.
The most significant feature is a fascinating commentary track with writer/director Bernard Rose. I loved this commentary from the moment Rose talks about how much he hates cheesy music overtop logos at the beginning of a film. The entire track is packed with information as well as a clear description of the methods and sources used for researching the film. Rose points out historical changes he made to accommodate the flow of the film, defends his take on the mystery, and outlines the measures he took to layer the film with every small detail imaginable (costuming, sets, and script). His discussions about the politics, trends, and artistry of the time period are incredibly intricate, but are rarely overwhelming.
He occasionally rants about critical reaction to his film, but in doing so, he serves up a point-counterpoint argument that kept me listening. He also provides his own social commentary on the decline of modern music, the evaporation of respect for classical music, the differences between Mozart and Beethoven, and the contrast between modern and classical sensibilities. The only downside I found with this track is that he occasionally runs out of things to say and goes silent. Still, fans will certainly find this commentary an excellent companion to the film.
Next up is "Beloved Beethoven" (31 minutes), a carefully plotted documentary that's somewhat dry compared to the commentary. Instead of examining historical facts concerning the composer's life, the documentary focuses on Rose and his take on Beethoven. While he's just as interesting as he is in his commentary, some balance and multi-source fact verification would've been nice. This one's somewhat repetitive with the Rose's commentary, but to his credit Rose keeps things fresh for the most part.
Lastly, the "Original Behind-the-Scenes Featurette" (7 minutes) included on this disc is pure promotional fluff, which adds more thoughts from the actors to the proceedings, but otherwise fails to deliver anything of interest or weight.
(Note that all of the video features listed above are presented in 480 i/p only.)
'Immortal Beloved' is a stirring period piece that examines both the humanity and the madness of Ludwig van Beethoven. This Blu-ray comes with strong video quality, an excellent TrueHD track, and a small smattering of interesting supplements. I wouldn't recommend blind buying this one without seeing the film first, but fans of 'Immortal Beloved' will be extremely happy to see how well it has made the transition to high definition.