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The Double Life of Franz Schubert - A dramatization of Schubert’s Last Years  (1997)
Simon Russell Beale – Schubert; Jason Fleming – Franz von Schober; Dave Hill – The Orderly; Karl Johnson – The Doctor; Freddie Jones – Schubert’s father; Christopher Maltman – A Singer; Richard van Allan – Vogl; Emilia Fox – Karoline Esterhazy:
Nicholas Kent (Screenplay and Producer); Mark Bentley (Producer); Peter Webber (Director)
NVC ARTS 50-51865-0798-2 [50:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Those whose memory of Schubert’s biography dates back to a childhood reading of “The Boyhood of the Great Composers” should note the very necessary warning on the box that this film “contains strong sex, sexualized nudity and sexual health medical procedure”.  It might indeed be an old-fashioned Government information film warning of the risks of contracting venereal diseases, and in particular of the treatment you might have had for syphilis in Vienna in the 1820s.  The horrors are piled on in a very enthusiastic and portentous way presumably intended to be very shocking, and after a time the authors’ main intention would seem to be simply to make our flesh creep. 
 
I am indeed far from clear what the film was intended to show.  At the end a note tells us that Schubert died four years after contracting syphilis but that this was the most productive period of his life.  Perhaps it is intended to explore this point, but merely contrasting the composer’s time as a patient with brief scenes from his earlier life tells us little and explains less.  Although Simon Russell Beale manages to look at times almost alarmingly like portraits of the composer and often is shown composing when he should be doing something else, he fails to give any real idea of what were the musical demons that made him do this.  Even when we see him dashing music down on paper the results that we see look extremely neat, a long way from the apparent hasty rush that makes perusal of facsimiles of his real manuscripts such a fascinating experience.  Indeed, the time spent watching this film would be much better spent and more would be learnt about the composer by looking at such facsimiles or listening to the music itself.
 
All the actors do their best – and what a waste to employ the late Richard van Allan as Vogl without giving him the chance to show his vocal abilities better and to give Simon Russell Beale such terrible lines, but they are hampered by a leaden script and the lack of any clear purpose to the film.  I have nothing against some bending of biographical truth where that can really illuminate the subject or even to the wholesale distortions that Ken Russell made and inspired in others.  The best of such films did cast some light on their subjects but here the film reveals nothing.  The copious musical excerpts are used mainly as a form of background or mood music.  The film seems much longer than its fifty minute duration.  Much better to spend your time and money on discs of the composer’s music.
 
John Sheppard
 

 


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