Magic Flute – review

Director Kenneth Branagh has always been a traditionalist. Back when Baz Luhrmann was updating Romeo and Juliet for the MTV generation, keeping the language and adding frenetic visuals and a killer soundtrack, Branagh directed a four-hour version of Hamlet, the most faithful version ever put to film. Luhrmann’s movie sparked a sensation, proving Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers were still relevant to self-absorbed teens everywhere. Branagh’s, not so much.

With The Magic Flute, Branagh brings Mozart’s singspiel (an opera with occasional spoken dialogue) to the screen, but his adaptation is too timid to win over a wider audience. He sets the film in the First World War, but the setting never really jives with the opera’s magical world. He loads every frame with visual effects, but the cheap CGI doesn’t impress. He enlists beloved British comic Stephen Fry to translate the songs from their original German, but the story itself is too episodic to work as a film.

The plot follows a standard fairy-tale mould. Tamino (Joseph Kaiser), a handsome young soldier, is recruited by the Queen of the Night (Lyubov Petrova) to rescue her daughter from Sarastro (Rene Pape). Tamino immediately falls in love with the daughter, and with the help of a goofy sidekick and an eponymous magical instrument, he sets about his quest. Branagh keeps a relatively lighthearted tone throughout, and while that suits the opera’s sillier moments, it’s often a jarring contrast to the setting. Most of the time, the trenches and even the no man’s land don’t seem like terribly unpleasant places to be. There’s certainly never a sense that any of the characters are in danger, so watching the film is more a matter of waiting for things to happen than wondering how the story will turn out.

Naturally, the movie’s chief strength is its soundtrack. The Magic Flute is one of the most frequently performed operas in North America and one of the most beloved of all time, and Branagh’s cast performs it beautifully. Even when the visuals are at their most questionable, it’s always possible to close your eyes and enjoy the film on a purely aural level. Doubtless, there will be dedicated opera buffs who disagree, but untrained ears will have a hard time finding flaws in the vocal acrobatics — Petrova is particularly impressive in a highly demanding role.

Beautiful vocals may be enough for the converted, they’ll do little to sway those who instinctively dread opera. Where Luhrmann intuitively knew how to use film’s strengths to flatter his source material, Branagh simply doesn’t, and the results never quite justify the adaptation.

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