The Magic Flute (PG)

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The Independent Culture

In all of the promotional blurb that accompanies The Magic Flute, its stated aim is to introduce Mozart's opera to a new audience, so it would seem to have a dream team in Kenneth Branagh, its director, and Stephen Fry, who wrote the libretto. Repackaging high culture for the masses is what they do best. Sadly, they haven't done their best here.

Most unwary cinema-goers who see The Magic Flute will vow never to cross the threshold of an opera house as long as they live.

Branagh sets the story on the battlefields of the First World War, or rather, the war as it would be in a gaudy parallel universe of bright red uniforms and computer-generated floral meadows. It's a sort of "All Quiet On The Western Front of Tellytubbyland".

Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) is a young officer who is saved from a gas attack by three flying nurses. They present him to the Queen Of The Night (Lyubov Petrova), a witch who then sends him to rescue her daughter Pamina (Amy Carson) from her arch enemy, Sarastro (Ren Pape).

Conveniently, Tamino falls in love with Pamina just by seeing her photo, and she falls in love with him just by hearing his name. It's that kind of story. People keep singing about Tamino's bravery and the trials he has to endure, but we never see him doing anything heroic certainly not compared to an actual First World War soldier and the heavy lifting is all done by a clownish sidekick, Papageno (Ben Davis).

To begin with, The Magic Flute plods along much like any other well-meaning attempt to graft modern themes on to an old story, but Branagh soon stops trying to make sense of the zany source material, and lets the film drift off into psychedelic nonsense. At worst, the juxtaposition of war memorials and wacky surrealism is in horrible taste. At best, the few reminders of genuine 20th-century slaughter only emphasise how daft the rest of it is. Like last week's Branagh film, Sleuth, The Magic Flute always feels as if it belongs on stage, and it manages to look too expensive and too cheap simultaneously.

There are lots of special effects and lots of complicated tracking shots, and yet it still resembles a televised Royal Variety Performance. I don't mean to be harsh about such a Herculean endeavour just a week after Sleuth opened to damning reviews, but my patience ran out with an hour of this interminable folly still to go. Rent Amadeus instead.

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