The Magic Flute

Kenneth Branagh's opera adaptation hits all the right notes

The 7th Belfast Film Festival opened with the UK and Ireland premiere of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at a gala evening in the Odyssey Centre.

It was fitting that the festival should open with the latest work of the city’s most prolific and successful film-maker, although the man himself was not able to attend the evening, trapped as he is in Spain promoting the film on its general release there.

He did, however, make the time to record a video message to introduce the film, using this as a platform to call for managers of corporate cinema complexes to give films such as The Magic Flute a higher profile and a longer run in their scheduling.

The film itself was another example of Branagh’s genius at adaptation.

He has taken the fairy-tale story of the young hero Tamino’s quest for true love and transposed it to the trenches of the First World War.

Branagh and his co-adaptor, Stephen Fry, have reworked every detail of the original tale to fit seamlessly into their new vision.

Thus the dragon that stalks Tamino at the beginning of the opera becomes a snaky trail of mustard gas, chasing him through mud and barbed wire.

The three ladies who serve the Queen of the Night are transformed into busty, sensuous field nurses, although they still possess all of their magic and mischief.

While the vengeful and deranged Queen herself rides in on a primitive tank like an industrial Boudicca, Papageno, the pan-pipe playing bird-man, is now responsible for tending to carrier pigeons and gas-sensitive canaries.

Anyone who has ever watched a televised opera and read the subtitles will know just how much seems to get lost in translation.

Often what sounds so flowing and lyrical in a foreign language reads in English like dialogue from a third-rate play.

For this modernised, anglophonic version, Stephen Fry has had to be subtle and creative in how he re-imagined the libretto.

What he has managed to do is to retain the essence of the story while accommodating an English sense of humour that will allow a wider audience to enjoy the opera.

The screenplay that he and Branagh have co-written blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, between delight and terror.

Tamino’s trials and torments now derive from the horrors of war. Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s original message of brotherly love (albeit it steeped in Masonic symbolism) is made all the more poignant as a call for peace.

As far as performances are concerned, Branagh has managed to elicit competent acting from a cast comprising mainly of professional opera singers, a group rarely renowned for their abilities in this department.

Apart from Tom Randle as Monostatos and Benjamin Ray Davis as Papageno, the male actors do not particularly stand out, although none are noticeably weak.

This film belongs to its female cast-members, primarily newcomer Amy Carson as the put upon heroine Pamina. She evokes the turmoil and anguish of the character, torn as she is between warring parents and stalked by the evil Monostatos.

Carson is matched only by Lyubov Petrova as the Queen of the Night, Pamina’s mother, who brings the essential mania and fury to the role with delicious venom.

The real star of the film, however, is Mozart’s music, which Branagh manages to treat with utmost respect. Bearing in mind that this film has been financed entirely by the Peter Moores Foundation, a charitable organisation whose remit includes bringing opera to a wider audience, it would have been a surprise if this had not been the case.

Only the worst snobs and philistines will remain unmoved by the music. For everyone else, including many who have never watched an opera in their lives, this is an opportunity to experience the true genius of Mozart’s composition in an accessible, entertaining format.

The only criticism that could be levelled against The Magic Flute is the overambitious use of CGI effects that betray the relatively low budget of the project.

Poor quality CGI seems to be becoming an increasingly necessary cost-cutting device and one must be tolerant and understanding when watching these scenes. These unpolished moments stand in stark contrast to the rest of the film, but they are fleeting and quickly forgiven.

Branagh’s first move into filming opera, an art-form of which he confesses to having little prior knowledge or interest, matches the best of his Shakespearean efforts, especially the sublime musical version of Loves Labours Lost. The Magic Flute ought to cement his standing as a world-class film-maker.

Niall Bakewell