With the exception of The Tales of Hoffmann, I’m not really familiar with any other efforts to adapt an opera to film. I guess there are those Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptations (right?), but I don’t think of them in the same sense–the artistic one. Branagh’s The Magic Flute has more in common with his Hamlet then it does Hoffmann (and, I imagine, Phantom of the Opera).
Branagh sets his adaptation in a World War I setting–there are similar uniforms and trench warfare–to fine effect. The film opens with Branagh going wild with CG–something he does later–but he does it well. The film requires an indulgent suspension of disbelief immediately and it’s hard to get upset about the little CG butterfly. But after this strong opening, in the first act section, The Magic Flute falters.
Technically, the section is solid and all the singing is good. But the film introduces way too many characters in way too little time. Worse, the film takes a backseat to the concept here–the singers have English lines, but it’s frequently impossible to understand them. Whether or not any important narrative information is being conveyed doesn’t really matter–the impression exists, so it’s hard not to feel like one’s missing something. It isn’t just the unintelligibility, it’s also the way Branagh structures the first act. The Magic Flute feels very much like a gimmick–a filmed opera with CG; there’s technical competence–technical excellence, really–but without any visible artistic impulse.
Until the big trick.
I’m not sure it is a trick–I browsed the opera’s page on wikipedia but didn’t look too close–I might have just missed something. But there’s a reveal about halfway through the film, a little earlier, and immediately, everything changes.
Without trying to get through exposition–an impossible task given the storytelling techniques–Branagh and his cast get to immerse themselves in the material. It all gets very simple and very predictable and joyous to watch.
As the leads, Joseph Kaiser and Amy Carson have incredible chemistry, though the majority of their scenes are apart. Renè Pape is spectacular–he might have some of the best scenes. Benjamin Jay Davis, in the comedic sidekick role, gets grating rather fast. All of the singing is good, like I said before, as is the straight dialogue delivery.
That dialogue confused me, since I always thought operas were all singing, no dialogue. Here Branagh uses the dialogue sparingly and only in essential scenes. But there is one section at the end when I got impatient waiting for people to start singing again.
The Magic Flute has an iffy opening, a great middle and a long close. Not being familiar the opera, I don’t know if Branagh cut anything, but he should have done something with the ending. There are two or three false endings. Though they tie up all the subplot threads, the subplots aren’t important anymore after the big finish.
It’s hard to describe the middle of the film’s accomplishment; usually, artistry doesn’t show up late. It’s either present or not. But The Magic Flute is a different situation.
A lot of it is probably Branagh’s best work as a director–and it reminded me not to discount him.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Branagh and Stephen Fry, adapted for the screen by Branagh, English liberetto and dialogue by Fry, based on the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, liberetto by Emanuel Schikaneder; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Michael Parker; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet and Simon Moseley; released by Les Films du Losange.
Starring Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), René Pape (Sarastro), Lyubov Petrova (Queen of the Night), Benjamin Jay Davis (Papageno), Silvia Moi (Papagena), Tom Randle (Monostatos), Ben Uttley (Priest) and Teuta Koço (First Lady).