On June 9 Kenneth Branagh's virtuoso adaptation of Mozart's most famous opera, 'The Magic Flute,' will open across the U.S. With a libretto adapted by longtime friend and collaborator Stephen Fry, the film transplants the fantasy film opens on the eve of the First World War, taking us on a dangerous journey in pursuit of love and peace in a world full of death and destruction. Cahir O'Doherty talks to Branagh about the film and his new action thriller Jack Ryan starring Chris Pine and Keira Knightley.
Ken Branagh believes in the theatre like other people believe in God. He believes it can heal, he believes it can help and at times, when you least expect it, he believes it can be utterly miraculous.
But not everyone shares his faith or admires his legendary career, of course. It’s become commonplace in some circles to dismiss Sir Kenneth as the archetype of a certain kind of Shakespearean actor, a showboat trading on too many awards and accolades delivered far too early on. He’s really not all that, they like to remind us.
The thing is, when he’s good there’s almost no one like him. That has never actually changed throughout his acting career, which is most often compared to Sir Laurence Olivier’s (Branagh played him last year in 'My Week With Marilyn'). But he’s also a skilled director (best known for the superhero caper Thor, but he’s equally comfortable directing Shakespeare).
What’s certain is that there are very few contemporary directors with his proven virtuosic skill behind the camera, or his easy rapport with actors, or his ability to shape action on a grand scale.
Just watch the first six dazzling minutes of his about to be screened epic 'The Magic Flute' and you’ll witness a totally immersive world being created in front of your eyes. Branagh’s camera swoops down on the smoking trenches of World War I and you’re instantly transported to an epic battle as it unfolds in real time. All of this is accomplished in one continuous shot. Mozart’s silly, symbolic plot is given a weight and gravitas that sounds like it shouldn’t work but actually works like gangbusters.
It’s no small skill that. Having worked alongside the greatest living Englishman Stephen Fry on the libretto, 'The Magic Flute' under this inspired pairing emerges about as perfectly as you could ever expect.
“Apart from Mozart’s genius with the music, 'The Magic Flute' seems to offer license for interpreters to use their imagination,” Branagh tells the Irish Voice. “The central clash is between good and evil and young people clashing against an old order, and all in a way that people enjoy and identify with.”
Originally filmed in 2007, 'The Magic Flute' is finally making its way to U.S. cinemas thanks to 150 Emerging Pictures network theaters, who were so impressed by work they have agreed to screen it nationally. Talent will always find a way, it seems.
“The music in The Magic Flute has hints of the grand and the epic that we took our cues from,” explains Branagh. “That headed me toward a period that is so extraordinary, World War I. If ever there was a conflict on a massive scale it was that. The sacrifice was so huge and the numbers were so extraordinary and that’s where innocence was indeed shed. All of these things were in 'The Magic Flute,' I felt.”
The fact is there have been more productions of 'The Magic Flute' than you could ever count. It’s been set on the moon, it’s been set on a cowboy ranch, and it’s been set underwater. Waking it up was a tall order. It was Branagh’s own particular genius that decided the perfect setting for it now is during was the war to end all wars. “I thought the scale and the profundity of the First World War would be something the music would resonate with,” he says.
It seems shocking from our standpoint in history now but in 1914 when the First World War broke out it was commonplace to imagine the fighting would be over in months. It was possible for young men to dream of glory and adventure on the battlefield and then a safe return to their homeland. After all it was only a few decades since war involved cavalry charges and bugles. No one was prepared for the giant cannons and armored tanks and poison gas that lay ahead of them.
“'The Magic Flute' takes us from the end of the fairytale or dream and into the nightmare. The excitement of military recruitment and conscription invites you in but then gives way to what comes after,” Branagh says.
Listening to him enthuse about his finely crafted film it’s important to remember to remind this: Branagh grew up in a working class estate in Belfast. No one in his family had any background in the theatre. In fact they told him it was for people who were usually unemployed, homosexual and not from around here. He was smart not to listen to them, as it turned out.
But how did he get from the hardscrabble estates to the very upper echelons of British society within two decades? How did this working class boy become the man most likely to become the next boss of the National Theatre (founded by Laurence Oliver, ironically enough)?