The film takes place in 1824, toward the end of Beethoven's life; the viewer observes the composer through the eyes of Anna Holtz (played by Diane Kruger), a (fictional) Viennese music student summoned to transcribe the musical scribbles that form Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
As critic Andrew O'Hehir observes at Salon.com, "'This film was inspired by actual events,' read the ending credits, and I guess that's true: There really was a dude called Beethoven and he really wrote a killer symphony in 1824, when he was sick and mostly deaf. The rest of it is totally made up."
But even if the film is liberal with the facts, "the presentation of the Ninth is reason alone to see the film," writes Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. While viewers see the Kecskem_t Symphony Orchestra of Hungary, they hear on the soundtrack a highly-regarded 1996 Decca recording of Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.
"With her cinematographer, Ashley Rowe, and editor, Alex Mackie," adds the Times, director Holland "orchestrates bursts of images and metronomic camera pans that become a visual counterpoint to the music's propulsive and flowing tempos, its rushing violins and soaring voices. Every so often the camera focuses on one of Beethoven's hands, the fingertips stirring the air as if rustling the notes. The world falls away, blissfully."
The Village Voice agrees that the Ninth Symphony is a highlight, but doesn't like much else. "Unfortunately, this climax occurs in the middle of the film, and nothing much happens afterward — a major structural misstep. Instead of sending us out on the concert's high, screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, best known for the two ponderous biopics Ali and Nixon, deliver a film awkwardly composed."
The music beats the dialogue, which Salon's O'Hehir finds "occasionally silly." Yet The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns (evidently the only classical music critic to review the film so far) writes that Christopher Wilkinson's script is one of the things that "makes this film float — if at times just barely."
"The film's allure includes glossy production values, an alternately dreamy and realistic view of 19th-century Vienna, a script that doesn't talk down, and Ed Harris gunning for an Oscar with a bravura portrayal of Ludwig van Beethoven," adds Stearns, although the character of Anna "carries only middling interest."
Meanwhile, for The Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano writes that the film "seems intent on bringing a 1980s women's studies department sensibility to this 19th-century tale of tortured artistry and eleventh-hour sensitivity training. And for all its awe at the composer's mad genius and black hole-like ability to suck the oxygen from a room, the movie belongs to Anna, a girl with a dream in the days before girls were allowed to have them."