Peppy ... Kenneth Branagh's 'Magic Flute'
The Guardian, 8 September 2006
Opera is stagey and static; film tries to look like real life. Opera singers can't act (or so the cliche goes); actors, by and large, can't sing. These oft-repeated objections haven't stopped many directors from a series of brave and fascinating attempts to make cinema out of opera. The latest contender, Kenneth Branagh, resolves the stand-off with some panache. He takes Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' off the stage (where it remained in Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film) and on to the killing fields of the first world war. But at the same time, he makes war itself a play, turning the kookily esoteric opera into a metaphor of the struggle between dark and light in a Europe undergoing a loss of innocence.
Branagh has also made his singers act, using mostly emerging talents rather than operatic superstars, prizing dramatic expressiveness over vocal range. Bristolian newcomer Amy Carson is outstanding as love-interest Pamina, flagging a depth of emotion that plays alongside the limpid widescreen photography and soaring overhead shots.
Lyubov Petrova's feisty Queen of the Night (first seen riding one of the period's turretless tanks) has real screen presence, and Broadway talent Ben Davis does a tenderly screwball take on Papageno the birdcatcher - here the soldier who looks after all those mustard-gas canaries in the trenches.
Stephen Fry's liberally translated English-language libretto sometimes comes on all Gilbert and Sullivan ("I can end the pain I'm feeling/ Just by swinging from the ceiling"), and dares to turn long passages of recitative into spoken dialogue. But beneath the flashy transformations (the Queen's three ladies become sexy nun-nurses; the snake that threatens Tamino is a wisp of poison gas), it sticks pretty closely to the rococo plot.
Some of the film's brotherhood-of-man scenes have a whiff of a Benetton ad, and the odd computer-generated sequence looks more Shrek than Somme. But the sheer visual verve of Branagh's peppy direction turns this into that rarest of beasts: opera you can eat popcorn to.