The Magic Flute: A Rollicking Good Two Hours
Toronto Star, 20 March 2009
Turn off the rational side of your brain, engage your inner adrenaline junkie, and you'll have a rollicking good two hours amidst the frenzy that is Kenneth Branagh's take on 'The Magic Flute', a popular fable-opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that had its premiere in 1791.
Although this effort isn't without its pitfalls, there's no reason why we've had to wait more than two years since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to see it on a big screen. Almost in spite of all the visual tomfoolery, what really makes this film is the combination of voices coming from beautiful young actors and a score dynamically brought to life by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and conductor James Conlon.
The rest of the magic belongs to Mozart himself, whose gorgeous melodies and inspired ensemble writing make the experience a treat even with the eyes closed. This "Singspiel," a light opera with spoken dialogue thrown in, has been translated into witty English rhymes by Stephen Fry. The arias are all sung in English, as well.
Branagh has shifted the story's non-specific setting to the battlefields of World War I, where redcoats and bluecoats are fighting. The focus shifts from Mozart's advocacy of enlightened reason to the trials that lovers Tamino and Pamina must face before they can spend the rest of their lives together. There is also a heavy dose of peace mongering here, which has no roots in the original opera.
If you forgot to switch off your rational brain, you will soon begin to doubt the logic of many of Branagh's choices.
The movie's strongest moments come in the Overture and opening scenes, set in the trenches. Here, Branagh's imagination is truly inspired. Later, in Sarastro's crumbling castle-cum-field hospital, the CGI visual effects go over the top as the players scramble up and down ramparts and staircases.
It's a lot of boy's-own adventure stuff that fills the screen with business in case we're getting tired of the beautiful music. In the end, love triumphs. In this movie, the music triumphs, proving again that a true masterpiece can survive all kinds of meddling.