Immortal Beloved (1994)

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Released 11-Feb-2004

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Dolby Digital Trailer-Rain
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1994
Running Time 115:26
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (75:49) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Bernard Rose
Studio
Distributor

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Gary Oldman
Jeroen Krabbé
Isabella Rossellini
Johanna ter Steege
Marco Hofschneider
Miriam Margolyes
Barry Humphries
Valeria Golino
Gerard Horan
Christopher Fulford
Alexandra Pigg
Luigi Diberti
Michael Culkin
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $24.95 Music Ludwig Van Beethoven


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.40:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.40:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    "It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism."
- Ludwig van Beethoven (Gary Oldman)

    I bring a positive bias to this review. I remember seeing this film for the first time in 1994 and remember how it impressed upon me, both initially and again on subsequent viewings. Then when I purchased my DVD player, this was amongst the first DVDs I ordered (from Region 1) for my collection. This film remains one of my favourites.

    The film is of course about the life of one of the world's most famous and enduring musical composers, Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born in Bonn in 1770 and died in Vienna in 1827. Much has been written about this man, one of history's most talented musicians, but still, very little is known with certainty. What we do know about his life makes for a fascinating backdrop to his musical legacy. Beethoven settled in Vienna in 1792, after his mother died, and pursued his musical studies first under the tutelage of Joseph Haydn, with whom he did not get along, and then other famous composers/mentors of the day. He established himself among the music-loving Viennese aristocracy and enjoyed much success as a piano virtuoso, showing a definite preference for playing to private audiences than in public, as was more common for aspiring composers. As a pianist, it was reported that he had fire, brilliance and fantasy as well as depth of feeling, and his own compositions of this time reflected this passion, including the stirringly beautiful "Pathetique" Piano Sonata No.8 and the delicate "Moonlight" Piano Sonata No.14. In the early 1800s however, just as his musical career was taking off, Beethoven had to come to the shattering realisation that a hearing impairment he had been suffering with for some time was 1) becoming more pronounced and 2) incurable. In fact, the bones of his inner ear were becoming fused, which did have the benefit of giving Beethoven perfect pitch, but also after a while degenerated to the point where the bones fused together completely, creating as its side effects intolerably loud noise and pain. The fact that much of Beethoven's most emotionally direct, powerful, precisely structured and musically complex works were all composed over a time when he was either going deaf or else completely deaf is quite astounding. Works of this time included the highly charged and instantly recognisable Symphony No.5, the peaceful "Pastoral" Symphony No.6 (inspired by his feelings about the countryside), the complex "Emperor" Piano Concerto No.5 and, of course, his ambitious final magnum opus and great Mass, the "Choral" Symphony No.9, with its unmistakable refrain "Ode To Joy".

    When Beethoven first began playing as a boy, the world had already inherited the great musical legacies of Handel, Bach and Mozart, amongst others. Yet Beethoven chose a different path and instead of emulating the previous masters' styles, managed to distinguish himself with his own style quite quickly. For starters, unlike the other great master to whom Beethoven is now compared, Mozart, he was never restricted as a servant to anyone and never allowed himself to become a "pop composer for hire", as it were. His music was entirely unique - not originally widely popular, mind, as his music was so structured and aroused such passion as to be called "obscure" in some circles. Indeed, it would not be until many years later that the genius behind the complexity of these musical compositions would begin to be analysed, unravelled and finally appreciated - a process of analysis that continues for music lovers to this day. The status of Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the world's most, if not the most, revered musical composers of all time is assured. For range, emotion, mood and musical structure, his work is incomparable.

    But behind all this genius the man himself was unpredictable. Passionate, yes, but he was also a raging womaniser, had a volatile temper and often treated those around him very poorly. Yet, as director Bernard Rose states, "It is the human frailties which make the character real. Beethoven wasn't an overly nice chap to those closest to him.... In fact, he treated Schindler, who was (his closest friend) with him most of his life, like s***."  Immortal Beloved is a film that attempts to explore the life of Ludwig van Beethoven, using the musical legacy as the backdrop for telling this fascinating story. Of course, when you are telling a story about the life of Beethoven, his music was his life, and so it is logical that the music provides such a great rhythm and pace for most key scenes in this film. The music perfectly conveys key influences on the composer's life, such as love, anger and war.

    The story has been written by the director himself, based on his own extensive research of Beethoven, and it offers a potential solution to one of the greatest mysteries surrounding his life, a mystery that persists to this day; who was Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved", the unnamed woman referred to in several love letters found after the composer's death? The solution posed by Bernard Rose in this film is fictitious - or I should say it is an unproved but possible and well educated guess, based on the director's own extensive research. Unfortunately, Immortal Beloved was panned on its initial release in 1994 by many Beethoven aficionados and film critics, simply because of the fictionally dramatised nature of the film's conclusion. But these critics all completely missed the point. As Bernard Rose cautions, whatever you might think about the merits of the proposed solution to this unsolved mystery, the film itself is based on some painstaking research on the man's life and is, anyway, ultimately a film all about the man's music. The mystery/love story plot simply provides the vehicle for the documented story of this man's music and life to be told. This is the way the film should be approached; it is for the most part a definitely authoritative biography - to the extent possible from verifiable facts anyway - with a fictitious ending. The truth of the matter is that no-one knows for sure who Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" is, and most probably no one ever will.

    Many scholars have had a crack at this mystery over the years, trying to solve it by eliminating several of Beethoven's known lovers and potential suitors on the basis of record archives showing who was living and visiting where on what dates. Or, as one scholar puts it, speaking as if the matter had already been resolved: "It was a matter of elimination, following the geographical and temporal ground rules and laying each of the proposed candidates against them." Aha.  But these so-called "temporal ground rules" aren't helped any by having completely contradictory data and theories posed by numerous Beethoven biographers, due to among other issues the incomplete and unverifiable records of the time, the fact that various journals of the day only recorded the movements of some individuals in the population and not others (that is, it traced aristocrat's movements only, and not the commoners with whom Beethoven was also known to associate), and finally the fact that Beethoven himself confused the temporal ground rules by often mixing up the dates he wrote on his letters (the man was notoriously bad at any kind of maths!). As Bernard Rose stated in respect of his quest trying to piece this jigsaw together: "I soon realised that there is no imaginable way of conclusively proving such a thing as the recipient of an unaddressed letter a hundred and ninety years ago. Without proof, the true identity of Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" remains a mystery."  And so it will remain. But what a romantic mystery indeed. I for one like the potential solution posed in this film.

    Some quick comments about the cast and crew and highlights of the film. The first thing to highlight is the amazing performance of Gary Oldman as Beethoven. If this man is not one of the most focused and accomplished actors of our time, then I don't know who is. This is yet another extremely impressive performance from this man. Gary Oldman is very well supported here by Jeroen Krabbe, playing the crucial role of Beethoven's long suffering friend Anton Schindler with just the right degree of believability and pathos. The strong supporting cast also includes Isabella Rossellini as Anna Erdody, the stunning Valeria Golini as Beethoven's music student and lover Giulietta Guicciardi, Christopher Fulford as Beethoven's brother Casper van Beethoven and Johanna ter Steege as Casper's wife Johanna Riess. The film boasts some talented direction from young director Bernard Rose (not bad for a guy who started out his career making music videos such as UB40's "Red Red Wine" and Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax"!), as well as glorious location settings in the Czech Republic and Austria, and highly detailed and authentic costume designs that accurately reflect the changing fashions from the mid 18th century to the early 19th century. All together, this film is quite an accomplishment.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    This is a surprisingly rich and detailed, yet not entirely consistent and not perfectly handled video transfer.

    The transfer is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and it is 16x9 enhanced.

    The image quality is on the whole quite detailed. For the good majority of the feature, we are treated to a transfer that displays ample resolution, and in fact is quite stunning in its detail in parts, no doubt helped by the very photogenic subject matter, with much fine detail on offer particularly in facial close-ups and in the finery of the period costumes and the sets. Yet there are some scenes in the transfer, notably some of the outdoor scenes, that exhibit a greater overall softness in resolution. Even in these scenes however, whilst the softness may take the edge off, the image quality remains of a  very high standard. Shadow detail also scores well in the main, albeit again not with 100% consistency. There is certainly no low level noise at all to detract from the lush visuals.

    Colour is where this transfer is let down a touch - and this is particularly evident when doing a back-to-back comparison of some key scenes on this Region 4 DVD to the Region1 NTSC transfer. This is not to say that colour is unsatisfactory in the Region 4 PAL transfer - far from it, as skin tones are satisfactory, black levels relatively strong (again, there is some inconsistency) and the mixed colour palette employed by the director and cinematographer also conveyed at least satisfactorily. It's just that the colours in this transfer are all unfortunately just a bit reserved and would have benefited from marginally increased colour saturation. This issue is best illustrated in many of the outdoor scenes, where the director has gone to lengths to contrast the vivid greens and browns and blues in the European countryside as an effective visual break to the more modestly coloured interior sets, where the majority of the film's action takes place. Unfortunately though, this juxtaposition of colours in these outdoor scenes is left lacking a little in impact in this transfer, compared to the Region 1 transfer, which exhibits marginally better colour saturation and hence more "wow factor" as a result. This really is a sumptuously shot film, photographed by Polish cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, a man who has honed his craft over many years on an extensive and strangely eclectic list of feature film styles - everything from All Creatures Great and Small to Star Wars Episode V to Naked Lunch!  Whilst it still comes across as a beautiful film in this DVD transfer, it is a pity that the edge has been taken off just a touch with the subdued colour.

    The DVD transfer is very well handled in all other respects. There are no MPEG artefacts to note and film-to-video artefacts are also completely absent - there is not even any aliasing at all to spoil the fine lines found in the (often aliasing) piano keyboards or stringed instruments. Whilst there is a small smattering of minor film artefacts, as would be entirely expected for a film of this age, thankfully these little flecks and marks are all completely unobtrusive and largely restricted to the opening third of the movie.

    The subtitle language provided on this DVD is English for the Hearing Impaired, which I sampled for about a third of the feature. This displays what appears to be a relatively new trend in approaching subtitling technique, with the subtitles placed not in their usual position of bottom centre of frame, but instead moved around left and right of frame to be situated underneath the character on screen speaking. This left and right separation also allows for overlapping subtitles to be placed when two people are conversing across the frame. On top of this, the Hearing Impaired track is a little overzealous in trying to describe many sounds that might not have been entirely necessary, in my opinion. The end result is an overly busy and not entirely intuitive subtitle stream. Whilst the intention in placing the subtitles in different locations on the subtitle line in accordance with the visuals of whom is speaking is a well-meaning idea, I found it resulted in a lot greater concentration being required to a) locate, b) read and then c) keep up with every line - I found this much more distracting than the conventional subtitle style. Finally, I found the subtitle font to be distractingly large. (Note: The Region 1 DVD adopts a conventional subtitle style, so this post-modern technique is a new addition for the newly created PAL transfer.)

    This disc is RSDL-formatted, with the layer change occurring unobtrusively at 75:49.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The audio transfer fares better than the video transfer. The audio to grace this film is nothing short of stunning - highly appropriate in lending weight to such important aural subject matter. The audio track would be reference quality were it not for only one or two niggling issues, as discussed below.

    The only audio option on this DVD is English Dolby Digital 5.1 (recorded at the maximum bit rate of 448Kb/s). Note well that contrary to indications on both the front and back cover of this DVD, there is no dts audio track available on the disc.

    Dialogue quality cannot be faulted in this film; it is well mixed and remains clear and strong throughout. Nor did I have any real issues with the audio sync, although the quality of the ADR work in this movie is a little loose. (As a case in point, have a look at/listen to the scene at 26:42, where Giulietta is talking to her father. The father manages to squeeze out his ADR'd line of dialogue here completely uninterrupted, despite the fact that the visuals clearly show Giulietta kissing him on the lips briefly whilst he is talking!)

    The music for this film is of course that of Ludwig van Beethoven. The orchestration is by the London Symphony Orchestra, with Maestro Sir George Solti conducting. A truly stellar musical cast here includes pianists Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Pamela Frank. With such a heavyweight, world-renowned conductor and musicians behind the project, you can rest assured that the treatments offered up for all of Beethoven's works in this film is completely authentic - now this is how Beethoven should always be played!  To say that I am very impressed with this film's soundtrack would be a major understatement. The soundtrack grabbed my attention from the very first time I saw this movie back in 1994, and it remains to this day my all-time favourite film score. This is no doubt largely due to the fact that all the music feels like it is played completely correctly, and it is obvious writer/director Bernard Rose has treated all the pieces with the utmost respect in weaving them into his story. The result is a final film score that complements the visuals and conveys the emotions in a more direct and powerful way than any other film I have ever seen.

    The DVD's audio transfer not only answers the challenge that this music brings, but it delivers with an overall mix that is (minor issues aside) to die for. The Dolby Digital track delivers with startling clarity across the musical spectrum, from deep authentic bass drums and horns, to strikingly clear piano and violin, to delicate cymbals and percussion, through to the textured walls of sound in the lush orchestrations. And the DVD's audio transfer  has a huge dynamic range to deal with in this film too, from the poignant quiets of Beethoven's reflections and self-recriminations, through to some blistering war scenes involving close-up cannon explosions and other mayhem.

    My only small complaint in regards to the sound quality in the audio transfer is the annoying presence of some audio hiss in isolated scenes - most notably during those involving some of the quieter piano sonatas. For the worst example, listen to the poignant scene at 29:45, where Beethoven, believing he is alone with a new piano, delicately plays the Moonlight Sonata. Another scene similarly affected is the performance of the Emperor Concerto in Chapter 11. Note that these issues are not associated with poor quality of the music recordings themselves - this is evidenced by how much cleaner these piano pieces sound on the soundtrack CD (all recordings being digital recordings and carefully executed using modern recording equipment). Instead, the problem in the film appears to be an issue of the layering of the recorded music with other audio tracks in the final film mix, specifically the layering of the music with some poorer-quality location sound in these affected scenes. In any event, this audio hiss issue is only noticeable in a few isolated scenes, it is certainly not reflective of the quality of the overall audio transfer. I mention it only because this can surely be the one and only weak spot in what is an otherwise faultless DVD audio transfer. (Oh, well that is, excepting also one extremely brief (less than one second) audio slur noted at 22:08 too, but this is hardly noteworthy.)    

    The great news is, if you want a showcase use of surround sound audio mixing, then you certainly have it here on this DVD. The surround channels are used constantly throughout this film to provide an immersive soundtrack - in fact a quite impressive effort when you consider this track was mixed in the early days of DVD back in 1999. (Note: as far as I can tell, the Region 4 Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is the same audio mix to have graced the Region 1 DVD release in 1999.)   The surrounds are used first and foremost to brilliant effect with the music, opening up the soundstage quite naturally and impressively for the orchestrations and immersing the viewer right in the symphonies. But the rears are also constantly employed for all manner of other ambient sound effects, from birds to street noises to conversations to applause in theatres. This audio mix creates a very broad and deep soundstage that is sure to impress.

    Subwoofer use in this transfer is also brilliant. Have a listen to the horses at 37:08, the heartbeats at 44:10 and  63:30 and Napoleon's attack on Vienna during Chapter 11 for good examples. Superb stuff.

    All in all, this is a stunning effort - one of the best Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes I have come across. Pump this DVD up to reference volume and ask yourself whether you have heard any more stirring examples of 5.1 mixing than contained in this DVD's Chapter 11 (Napoleon attacks Vienna, with Symphony No.5), Chapter 21 (Karl at the ruins, with Symphony No.7 - note specifically the impressive gun shot echo around the room at 84:21), and Chapter 23 (the premiere performance of Symphony No.9, including "Ode to Joy").
   

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Unfortunately for this title, when there must be a wealth of material that could have been drawn upon for this popular subject matter, we get only a bare-bones DVD release here. What a bummer.

Menu

    The menus are presented in the appropriate aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced. The menus are basic, static, silent menus.

Theatrical Trailer (1:12)

    Presented in 1.85:1, not 16x9 enhanced, and with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. This trailer features woeful quality audio, including bad audio hiss and a weak sound delivering no dynamic range - this provides little incentive for the film's stirring music. The video quality doesn't fare much better in the trailer either, with poor colouring and weak, charcoal blacks. Still, at least we get to see the trailer.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This film was released in Region 1 way back in 1999, but sadly it has not received a release as yet in Region 2.

    The Region 1 release has a better video transfer and a more comprehensive extras package. In comparison to the Region 1 release, Region 4 misses out on:

    In comparison to the Region 4 release, Region 1 misses out on:

    NB: Contrary to indications on both the front cover and back cover of the Region 4 DVD, there is no dts audio track on this disc. The fact that a dts track is explicitly stated as included on the DVD is extremely misleading. Please beware.

    This is clearly a Region 1 winner.

Summary

    Immortal Beloved is an intoxicating film. It remains one of my all-time favourites. As a drama, this film works well. As an enlightening historical period piece, it works well. As a romantic mystery, it works well. And as a feel-good movie, it works very well.

    The DVD's video transfer is very good (just not quite as good as the Region 1). The audio transfer is showcase surround sound material. The extras are virtually non-existent (unlike the Region 1 package).

    If you love music or have an interest in the life and times of one of history's greatest composers - or even if you just love a good drama - then this film comes very highly recommended.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Sean Abberton (read my bio)
Friday, February 20, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 2109, using Component output
DisplayToshiba 117cm widescreen rear projection TV. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL). This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderYamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL).
AmplificationElektra Theatre 150 Watts x 6 channel Power Amplifier
SpeakersOrpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears

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Comments (Add)
A Valuable Review - NickM REPLY POSTED
Bravo ! - wolfgirv REPLY POSTED
panned by critics for very good reasons. - Style-Master
Correction re Peter Suschitzky - Gary Couzens REPLY POSTED