Kenneth Branagh Talks 'Magic Flute' With Stephen Fry and Filming with Keira Knightley and Chris Pine

Irish Central, 1 June 2013
By Cahir O'Doherty
* Thanks, Carla

On June 9 Kenneth Branagh's virtuoso adaptation of Mozart's most famous opera, 'The Magic Flute,' will open across the U.S. With a libretto adapted by longtime friend and collaborator Stephen Fry, the film transplants the fantasy film opens on the eve of the First World War, taking us on a dangerous journey in pursuit of love and peace in a world full of death and destruction. Cahir O'Doherty talks to Branagh about the film and his new action thriller Jack Ryan starring Chris Pine and Keira Knightley.

Ken Branagh believes in the theatre like other people believe in God. He believes it can heal, he believes it can help and at times, when you least expect it, he believes it can be utterly miraculous.

But not everyone shares his faith or admires his legendary career, of course. It’s become commonplace in some circles to dismiss Sir Kenneth as the archetype of a certain kind of Shakespearean actor, a showboat trading on too many awards and accolades delivered far too early on. He’s really not all that, they like to remind us.

The thing is, when he’s good there’s almost no one like him. That has never actually changed throughout his acting career, which is most often compared to Sir Laurence Olivier’s (Branagh played him last year in 'My Week With Marilyn'). But he’s also a skilled director (best known for the superhero caper 'Thor', but he’s equally comfortable directing Shakespeare).

What’s certain is that there are very few contemporary directors with his proven virtuosic skill behind the camera, or his easy rapport with actors, or his ability to shape action on a grand scale.

Just watch the first six dazzling minutes of his about to be screened epic 'The Magic Flute' and you’ll witness a totally immersive world being created in front of your eyes. Branagh’s camera swoops down on the smoking trenches of World War I and you’re instantly transported to an epic battle as it unfolds in real time. All of this is accomplished in one continuous shot. Mozart’s silly, symbolic plot is given a weight and gravitas that sounds like it shouldn’t work but actually works like gangbusters.

It’s no small skill that. Having worked alongside the greatest living Englishman Stephen Fry on the libretto, 'The Magic Flute' under this inspired pairing emerges about as perfectly as you could ever expect.

“Apart from Mozart’s genius with the music, 'The Magic Flute' seems to offer license for interpreters to use their imagination,” Branagh tells the Irish Voice. “The central clash is between good and evil and young people clashing against an old order, and all in a way that people enjoy and identify with.”

Originally filmed in 2007, 'The Magic Flute' is finally making its way to U.S. cinemas thanks to 150 Emerging Pictures network theaters, who were so impressed by work they have agreed to screen it nationally. Talent will always find a way, it seems.

“The music in 'The Magic Flute' has hints of the grand and the epic that we took our cues from,” explains Branagh. “That headed me toward a period that is so extraordinary, World War I. If ever there was a conflict on a massive scale it was that. The sacrifice was so huge and the numbers were so extraordinary and that’s where innocence was indeed shed. All of these things were in 'The Magic Flute,' I felt.”

The fact is there have been more productions of 'The Magic Flute' than you could ever count. It’s been set on the moon, it’s been set on a cowboy ranch, and it’s been set underwater. Waking it up was a tall order. It was Branagh’s own particular genius that decided the perfect setting for it now is during was the war to end all wars. “I thought the scale and the profundity of the First World War would be something the music would resonate with,” he says.

It seems shocking from our standpoint in history now but in 1914 when the First World War broke out it was commonplace to imagine the fighting would be over in months. It was possible for young men to dream of glory and adventure on the battlefield and then a safe return to their homeland. After all it was only a few decades since war involved cavalry charges and bugles. No one was prepared for the giant cannons and armored tanks and poison gas that lay ahead of them.

“'The Magic Flute' takes us from the end of the fairytale or dream and into the nightmare. The excitement of military recruitment and conscription invites you in but then gives way to what comes after,” Branagh says.

Listening to him enthuse about his finely crafted film it’s important to remember to remind this: Branagh grew up in a working class estate in Belfast. No one in his family had any background in the theatre. In fact they told him it was for people who were usually unemployed, homosexual and not from around here. He was smart not to listen to them, as it turned out.

But how did he get from the hardscrabble estates to the very upper echelons of British society within two decades? How did this working class boy become the man most likely to become the next boss of the National Theatre (founded by Laurence Oliver, ironically enough)?

“I hope I haven’t shaken any hands with any devil or made some terrible bargain with my soul,” he laughs. “It was pretty remarkable to even receive the invitation to direct this film. It was pretty far from my old life back in Belfast. And yet the poetry and lyrical world of 'The Magic Flute' is not that far away from the folk songs and legends of home. The Irish have always embraced the fantastical with fairy stories and legends so when you come to Mozart they’re not so far from the romanticism that is at least part of the Irish character.”

Next up on Branagh’s slate is 'Jack Ryan,' the Tom Clancy thriller starring Chris Pine and Keira Knightley (Branagh directs and also plays the villain). “The script was an absolute page-turner when I read it and the role is perfect for an actor like Chris Pine to come in and own the role,” he confesses.

“It occupies the territory between Jason Bourne and James Bond and Ethan Hunt in 'Mission Impossible'. 'Jack Ryan' is an everyman hero who bumps into the world of espionage in a way I think is very appealing.”

Branagh admits he enjoyed working with Chris Pine enormously and the film gave him a chance to reconnect with Kevin Costner, who he first met twenty years ago. He’s also full of praise for Keira Knightley.

“Keira brings class, real intelligence and wit and knockout beauty to 'Jack Ryan,'” he says. “She was a marvelous combination with Chris Pine. It’s an ever so suspenseful final and a real pleasure to make.”

Being asked to direct was flattering enough, but the producers also asked him to play the villain (and after months of reflection, he agreed). It was the quality of the writing and the character, he says.

“He’s an unusual villain, he’s taken seriously and drawn with depth. The possibility for detailed and layered performances were all over the script, as a matter of fact. When those kinds of parts are well written it’s a joy to come in you’ll see my character get the best comeuppance he could possibly get.”

Currently Branagh is rehearsing to play the title role in 'Macbeth' in the UK and he’s delighted that American audiences will finally get to see the opera film he struggled to get right. “It’s a genuine thrill that its out there in the U.S. and I can’t wait for people to see it,” he says.

'The Magic Flute' opens on June 9.

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