Kenneth Branagh: Relight my fire

Kenneth Branagh has turned his brooding gaze from the Bard to Mozart. But his astonishing ‘Magic Flute’ isn’t the only thing setting Hermione Eyre’s heart aflutter. Portrait by George Chin
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The Independent Culture

Does Kenneth Branagh have fans any more? What a question. Some of us are loyal and true. Some of us still think he is our greatest Shakespearean (so perhaps his latest films haven't been runaway successes, but you try making something half-decent out of Love's Labour's Lost). Some of us still believe, contrary to all evidence, that Peter's Friends can be enjoyed without cringing. Some of us think – sorry, this is one of those interviews – the lumpy wart things on Kenneth's chin give him character. Some of us will schlep out to see anything he does, even when he's not on-screen, just directing, as is the case with his latest, a cinematic adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

The film entirely reimagines the opera by setting it in the trenches of the First World War. Out with fey theatricality; in with duckboards, barbed wire and genuine emotional and physical jeopardy. In the opening scene Tamino, around whom the action revolves, is not wrestling with a pantomime serpent as is traditional, but wading through No Man's Land, pursued by a vaporous snake of mustard gas. Mozart's confection is suddenly vital. Yet there is still magic and whimsy in this Flute, with crazy kaleidoscopic images and an inventive patchwork of CGI. From my entirely objective standpoint, the film's a knockout. There will be lots to discuss with Branagh: the challenge of translating opera to the big screen, the Hegelian dialectic in Mozart, what he's doing on Saturday... Anyway, here he comes, sandy-blonde and beamish, tugging at his jumper like a boy. "Mr Branagh, erm, could you tell me about your relationship with The Magic Flute? I think I read in your autobiography, Beginning, that you were nearly cast as Peter Shaffer's Amadeus."

"Well, wow, I did audition for that over a period of months way back in 1982... But I have to confess that was probably the last time I listened in any conscious way to Mozart. I was something of an opera virgin prior to this project, really. If I did go, which was very infrequently, I found it felt like a static, animated concert and I found identification with the characters and the story hard to come by. I recognised that I had the same problems with opera that other people had with Shakespeare, which was some level of intimidation, or lack of patience, or just misfortune regarding the productions."

His eyes are very blue. But he speaks in such long and syntactically torturous sentences. He never used to do this, I think; perhaps time and fame have tangled the 46-year-old's linguistic shoelaces. He almost obfuscates his meaning at times. This is ironic, given that Branagh's lifelong calling has been making the classics accessible to a wide audience. This was why he was invited to direct the Flute by its main backer, the Peter Moores Foundation, a charitable trust that invests in arts projects such as affordable English-language recordings of rare operas. "Sir Peter Moores says he wants to open the doors to culture, though not to push people through them. And I felt very simpatico with that. I wanted to make this an all-embracing experience for a new opera audience, of which I consider myself at the front of the queue, really."

Sir Kenneth, how did your preparation begin? With total immersion in different recordings of the Flute, he says. "I was lying in my study at home on a Saturday," (alone, perchance? Though to be realistic, his wife, the art director Lindsay Brunnock, might have been next door) " listening with my eyes closed while the overture chuntered along. And with the music I could see explosions."

Gradually, the idea of a wartime setting began to coalesce. With the help of Stephen Fry, who was the librettist, he developed a new schema. Tamino could be a soldier- poet, like Rupert Brooke. Papageno could be a canary-keeper, testing for gas in the trenches. The Three Ladies could be field nurses. "I was drawn to the darker elements," says Ken. "Drawn to everything that wasn't comic opera, wasn't Mozartian ebullience, effusiveness, lightness, galloping gossamer stuff. All that's there, for sure, but he also seems to have plumbed the depths in this opera. There are very powerful parentheses in the second act on the meaning of life and death and the darkness of music, and there is so much violence inherent in the arias of the Queen of the Night." Indeed, the queen makes her first appearance astride a tank, a Boudicca joining battle.

Later, tanks seem to issue from her epiglottis in a mad, abstract set-piece. Dear Lord Branagh of Twickenham (all of the filming was done there, by the by) wherever did you get the ideas for those surreal effects? Such as making love-starved Papageno dive into a huge pair of Dali lips? Or, in a thrilling, Disneyesque moment, sending the Queen of the Night zooming around the stars like a bluebottle? "A demented Tinkerbell, I think that was how I described it in the script. Well yes, a friend did say to me, 'Some of this is just trippy!' and I said, 'Well, for Chrissake, look at the opera. The fantastical and the magical are absolutely at the centre of it.' I tried to listen to intuition and to be unafraid to be fantastical, to use the scope of the cinema to do things that can't be done on stage."

One of the more subtle filmic effects is to internalise the arias of Pamina (played by Amy Carson), who, in the manner of Olivier in his Hamlet soliloquies, appears pensive while her singing plays as soundtrack. Carson, and all of the cast, were singers first and actors second. "It may sound pretentious," says Branagh (never! I tell him with my eyes), "but I felt dubbing other people's voices would remove the soul of the film."

Another Branaghism is to interpolate "subliminal" shots of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro in embrace. "They last a quarter, maybe half a second," he says, "but they represent either what has happened between them, or" – he slows his words to a significant staccato – "what she would have liked to have happened. They're not definitive."

Unlike, say, the shots he controversially inserted into Hamlet, featuring himself as Hamlet in bed with Ophelia (Kate Winslet, lucky bitch!) which were rather hurtfully conclusive. Does this lighter touch represent a progression in your technique, Prince Ken? "Maybe one is a little bit older and wiser now," says the man for whom so much happened so young that he published his autobiography at 31. (Some of us are still waiting, incidentally, for the next instalment.)

Cinema's most famous Flute is Bergman's 1975 production, filmed largely in Stockholm's tiny 18th-century Drottningholm opera house. Branagh loves its pantomimic, innocent theatricality, but also felt it freed him to do something different. By ignoring the cultish Masonic elements usually associated with Sarastro and instead investing him and the Queen of the Night with armies at war, he makes new sense of Mozart's most puzzling opera. "But of course this isn't the definitive Flute – there can't be one."

I try whispering "I beg to differ" but he is already preparing to leave. Heavenly Kenneth, do you still listen to the Flute or are you frankly fed up with it? "No, I still love it and it reminds me of happy times making it. I still play it on my iPod while I'm out jogging."

He leaves very quickly. There's not even time to ask where he jogs, or when. *



'The Magic Flute' is released this Friday. Branagh talks today about the film at The Barbican, London EC2, on 25 November (0845 120 7527; www.barbican.org.uk/film )

The Collection

On-song movies: The silver screen's finest operatic moments

The Merry Widow (1934)

Ernst Lubitsch gives Franz Lehar's operetta the MGM treatment. Features Maurice Chevalier and 500 dancing extras

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

Powell and Pressburger's surreal masterpiece. Venerated by directors from George Romero to Martin Scorsese

The Magic Flute, (1975)

Ingmar Bergman at his most charming. Opens in the 18th-century Drottningholm theatre, then moves to fantasy locations

Parsifal (1982)

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's meditation on history begins on a craggy landscape, which turns out to be a vast death mask of Wagne

Otello (1986)

Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of Verdi's Otello stands out for its spectacle and powerful cast: Placido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli and Justino Dìaz

The Death of Klinghoffer (2003)

Penny Woolcock's award-winning film was arguably the first opera to be adapted with the help of its composer

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