The Magic Flute is Kenneth Branagh's English-language film version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's singspiel Die Zauberflöte. The film is a co-production between France & the UK, produced by Idéale Audience and in association with UK's The Peter Moores Foundation.
In November 2005, it was announced that, as part of the 250th anniversary celebration of Mozart's birthday, a new film version of The Magic Flute, set during World War I, was to be made, directed by Kenneth Branagh, with a translation by Stephen Fry. The film was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival on 7 September 2006, at the Venice Film Festival on 8 September of that year, and released in Switzerland on 5 April 2007. It has played in many European countries.
The film, with a soundtrack performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by James Conlon, is the first motion picture version of the opera specifically intended for cinemas. Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film version was made for Swedish television and only later released to theatres. Branagh's version was shot in Super 35 and released in anamorphic widescreen, while Bergman's was filmed in Academy ratio for television sets of the 1970s.
A DVD of the film was released in France in August 2007 with a bonus soundtrack CD (lasting around 79 minutes) and a "Making of" featurette (50 minutes). The film has also been released on DVD in the Netherlands (in a three-disc set), Finland, Argentina, and Japan.
Revolver Entertainment is giving the film a theatrical release in the United States in June 2013, seven years after its premiere in Europe.
The story, which has been updated to a World War I setting, follows the structure of the original opera libretto very closely while stripping away all the Freemasonry references. All of Mozart's music for the opera is retained in the film. Tamino is still sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina after Sarastro has apparently kidnapped her, as in the original. His sidekick is still the comical Papageno, a birdcatcher in the original opera, but a man who uses underground pigeons to check for poison gas in the Branagh film. As in the original work, spoken dialogue is interspersed with the arias, duets, and choruses. There are some other updates to the plot mirroring the WW I setting, though, as well as some changes. Tamino is menaced at the beginning, not by a dragon, but by poison gas. The Three Ladies who serve as attendants to the Queen of the Night are turned into hospital nurses and the Queen herself is made more tragic and less purely evil (Upon climbing the wall of Sarastro's dwelling and seeing through the window that Tamino and Pamina have already been married, she commits suicide by deliberately letting herself fall after accidentally losing her footing). Sarastro in this version is a man in charge of a field hospital, not a high priest, and his ultimate wish is world peace, not simply the triumph of good over evil. (He is also Pamina's father, as in the 1975 Ingmar Bergman film version of the opera, and the Queen of the Night is apparently his estranged ex-wife, although this is never directly stated.) Sarastro desperately tries to save the Queen's life before she falls, unlike the character in the original opera, and, just as in the Bergman film, Monostatos commits suicide at the end. Papageno does not wear a feather filled costume as in the original stage work, nor does his sweetheart Papagena, though the pair are frequently accompanied by birds – especially chickens – and their lines are filled with clever bird references. The "water trial" that Tamino must endure occurs when the trench that he and Pamina are in becomes flooded and the trial of fire is a walk through a battlefield in which bombs are constantly exploding.
The comedy in The Magic Flute is retained faithfully in the film. As in the opera, the beautiful young Papagena pretends to be an old woman as part of one of the tests that Papageno must undergo before winning her and, again as in the original work, the film audience sees her only as an old woman until near the end (except in a two-paged spread that Papageno reads). However, because this is possible on film, the old Papagena is played by a genuine elderly woman (Liz Smith in a non-singing role), not by soprano Silvia Moi, who plays the young Papagena, while in stage versions of the opera, both characters are always played by the same singer, who, as the old woman, either covers her face and speaks with a cackle, or dons an "old woman" mask which she conveniently throws off when she turns into the young version of herself.
The film completely removes all the sexist references from the original opera libretto and plays down the so-called "racist" aspects. The black Monostatos is still a villain and would-be rapist, but nowhere in the film is it implied that this has anything to do with his race; the implication is averted by the casting of a couple of black actors as good characters. In one aria, Monostatos broods that Pamina may not want him for a lover because of his race, much as Othello does in Shakespeare's play, when he broods over whether or not Desdemona has been unfaithful.
Almost the entire cast is made up of classically trained singer-actors with operatic voices. Branagh consulted with conductor James Conlon over casting choices, but it was Branagh who had the final say, preferring to cast singers who "looked the part" even if they were relatively unknown, rather than choosing well-known operatic stars who were physically unsuitable. (René Pape, who has sung and acted the role of Sarastro in several productions of the opera onstage, is the best-known singer in the entire film.) Branagh also expressed a wish not to cast non-singing actors and have their voices dubbed by opera singers, probably because he felt that seemed too artificial.Joseph Kaiser as Tamino
Benjamin Jay Davis as Papageno
Amy Carson as Pamina
René Pape as Sarastro
Lyubov Petrova as Queen of the Night
Tom Randle as Monostatos
Silvia Moi as Papagena
Liz Smith as Old Papagena
Teuta Koco, Louise Callinan, Kim-Marie Woodhouse as The Three Ladies
William Dutton, Luke Lampard and Jamie Manton as The Three Boys
The film, made on an estimated budget of $27,000,000, has so far grossed a total of $1,954,337.
The film has mostly received unusually good reviews in Europe for a Branagh film – his films generally receive better reviews in the US. On 11 June 2013, seven years after its premiere, the film was finally released on a Region 1 DVD in the United States.
Variety's Derek Elley, who saw the film at the Venice Film Festival, gave it a mixed review. However, he confused the characters Sarastro (the wise and kindly enemy of the Queen of the Night) and Monostatos (his lecherous henchman, who tries to rape Pamina and eventually defects to the Queen's side).
Total Film mistakenly blamed Mozart for the "silliness of the story". Mozart wrote only the music, not the libretto (the libretto is by Emanuel Schikaneder).
Ronald Bergan, in his online blog for the British newspaper The Guardian criticised Elley and others for apparently not informing themselves more about the original opera before they began to write their reviews of the Branagh film.
in 2009, three years after the release of the film, Roger Lanser, who has photographed several other Kenneth Branagh-directed films, received a Cinematographer of the Year Award from the Australian Cinematographers Society for his work on The Magic Flute. Because the film has not played in Los Angeles yet, it still has not qualified for any Academy Awards.