Once upon a time (the rumor goes), two sisters both loved and lusted after important 18th Century German author/critic Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), and it's at this point that we perhaps tense up a little bit in regards to Beloved Sisters, recalling all of the other person that find Long-Dead Important Artist Better-Known By Academics Than Everyday People getting in over his or her head in soap-opera-ey romantic travails. There are good films and even great ones to be found in this genre (Jane Campion's Bright Star, which like Beloved Sisters is more interested in the woman who loves the artist than the artist himself, here steps forward), but there are a lot of bad ones. Nor is the track record for costume dramas of late so strong that hearing about somebody making a new one automatically fills our hearts with hope and joy for the cinematic brilliance about to unfold. While "cinematic brilliance" is far more than Beloved Sisters can honestly claim to offer, it's a much better version of its genre and its scenario than the average, and even more impressively, at 171 minutes long (a 138-minute version also exists, but isn't apparently being shown outside of Germany), and 171 minutes that are moreover not remotely justified by the amount of content of its plot, it still moves by with enough passion and drive that even I, who finds fault with the running time of every movie that breaks an hour and a half, can't honestly claim that I felt the length or thought that the movie ever allowed itself to be boring.
The beloved sisters are Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henritte Confurius), barely out of her teens, and the indifferently-married Caroline von Beulwitz (Hanna Herzsprung), whose wealthy and uninteresting husband (Andreas Pietschmann) is almost solely responsible for keeping the von Lengefeld family fiscally solvent. It's a drearily typical arrangement that is imbalanced when Charlotte, packed off to the city to find a marriageable (and rich! can't forget rich!) man of her own, bumps into the already-legendary young author Schiller mostly by accident. This begins a flirty friendship-type situation that quickly comes to envelope Caroline herself - there's a surprisingly sexy moment early on involving a cold, wet, and naked Schiller that gets things kicked off nicely, if they weren't quite there to begin with - and it takes very little time before the sisters agree to share Friedrich as their soulful new lover. For his part, the writer only slightly, but very distinctly, prefers Caroline, which goes from being a minor problem to kind of a big one after he marries Charlotte, and even moreso as he starts to become Charlotte's literary mentor. And from here things descend into a rather disappointingly rote litany of jealousies and tragic detachments from family and loved ones.
On its way to that point, though, Beloved Sisters has some surprises to dole out. The shape of the thing is distinctly familiar - a years-spanning collection of incidents from the life of Famous Men and Their Women - but the ingredients are presented with unusual intelligence; writer-director Dominik Graf isn't afraid of the intellectual life of 1880s and 1890s Germany, and he explores issues of philosophy, politics, and literature with a collector's eye for details and illuminating anecdotes. He's even more interested in how that life worked for women slightly on the outside of it rather than celebrated writers on the inside, and though there's a bit of chilly academia in its dissection of gender politics, it's hard to think of another recent feminist-ish costume drama that's so free of "we moderns are the best!" pandering, to such good effect. I suspect that one's innate fascination with 18th Century continental aesthetics drives the degree of affection one could possibly have for all of this; if the name "Friedrich Schiller" already makes your eyes glaze over, the very long beginning and middle of Beloved Sisters would probably be a pretty rough sit. As a pretentious ass who hates everything new, I confess, reader: I dug it.
The messy realism in the sets and lighting do the film credit as a snapshot of life some two and a quarter centuries into the past, and the rest of the work in this vein is done by Herzsprung and Confurius, breathing an beautifully loose-limbed reality into their characters and, most crucially the "I would do anything for you intimacy" between the sisters (as Schiller, Stetter is... fine, just fine. Better than a shrug, but nowhere near the level of his co-leading ladies). Nothing in the film quite shakes the slightly over-prestigey trappings of the genre and subject matter, but damn me if Beloved Sisters doesn't have quite a healthy serving of the erratic human vitality that's precisely what ordinarily goes missing from films like this.
That is, right up until it doesn't. It's never perfect - the music by Sven Rossenbach and Florian van Volxem throughout, I can only describe as "loopy" - but it gets increasingly imperfect as it goes along, and when it eventually explodes in a mess of jealous and angry self-deprivation, the film starts to lose air at a precipitous rate. And there's a lot of it left when that happens. It still flickers to life at points, and Confurius remains a tightly-wound, exciting screen presence, but sadly, Herzsprung goes off the cliff when the story does (she certainly gets the less dynamic material to play, the further long history marches). And there's always a certain prurient interest in stories about how Great Men could be involved in soap operas like the rest of us, though Beloved Sisters isn't tawdry enough to work all that well as a melodrama. The film never quit tips into being actively bad, at any rate, but it's hard to deny that the last hour isn't nearly as engaging, smart, or unique as the first two. A two-thirds success rate isn't so bad as all that, but with a running time like this, that leaves plenty of deadwood to go around.