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Ever since Mozart’s final opera, The Magic Flute, was first performed in 1791, it has enchanted music lovers, tested generations of coloratura singers with one of the most notoriously challenging arias in the canon, confused anyone who tried to make too much sense of the storyline, and captivated those who like to do deep dives into conspiracy theories, inspired by multiple arcane Masonic symbols in the story. A beautiful Swedish language version was directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1975 and a strange English language version set in World War I, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was released in 2006.
This new international production, directed and co-written by Florian Sigl, is grandly envisioned but unevenly produced. It takes place in a music boarding school in the mountains named for Mozart. The students are putting on a production of The Magic Flute. The school also has a secret magic passageway to an actual magic flute story.
In addition to the music (which has a touch of Michael Jackson), the movie benefits from intricate, often beautiful production design by Christoph Kanter, especially the interior of the school and some of the magical settings. Some of the showiest visuals in the enchanted landscape reflect the influence of producer Roland Emmerich, best known for effects-heavy blockbusters.
To make the 18th-century creation more accessible, the German libretto of Mozart’s opera is loosely translated into English and some singers are closer to pop than classical. The Queen of the Night aria, though, is performed by Sabine Devieilhe, an acclaimed diva who has played the same role with the Royal Opera of London. It is breathtaking when she sings that thrilling aria, her fabulous cloak floating up to the sky as though it's carrying her astonishing high notes. Morris Robinson, also a professional opera singer, gives his rich, resounding bass notes to Sarastro, accused by the Queen of abducting the princess. Iwan Rheon is on hand for the lovesick comic relief character Papageno.
The student who discovers the passageway is Tim Walker, played by elfin-faced Jack Wolfe. He arrives late, six weeks into the term, because he has been caring for his dying father (Greg Wise), who gives Tim a very old book of The Magic Flute he has had since he was a student at the Mozart International School. He wants Tim to return the book. And he promises that the school will change Tim’s life.
On the Hogwarts Express, I mean the train to the school’s remote location in the mountains, Tim meets Sophie (Niamh McCormack), but he does not see much of her as the boy and girl students are kept separate. The stern headmaster who lectures Tim on deportment and determinism is played by F. Murray Abraham, perhaps a nod to his Oscar-winning role as Mozart’s nemesis, Salieri, in “Amadeus.”
As Tim tries to catch up with the students who have been there since the start of the term, he does not pay much attention to his quiet roommate or to the school bully Anton (Amir Wilson), the son of a famous opera singer. This section of the film is lightweight but may appeal to audience members who have not seen dozens of movies about high school.
Most of Tim’s attention and ours is on what lies outside the secret passageway that only appears when Tim returns the book his father gave him to the shelf. Once he enters the passage, he becomes the central character in “The Magic Flute,” Prince Tamino. He is attacked by a gigantic serpent, befriended by the bird-catcher Papageno, and ordered by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil Sarastro. When he finds Pamina, though, Tamino learns that the Queen has not been entirely truthful.
The number three, an important Masonic symbol throughout the opera’s story and score, is significant in the film as well. The passageway opens at 3:00 AM and lasts for three hours. There are three balls of light leading Tim into the passage, and they give him three pieces of advice. Three of the queen’s ladies rescue Prince Tamino from a monster. He is joined by two allies on his adventures and given three tests. The key the music is written in has three flats. Even the obligatory introduction to the school’s social hierarchy from Tim’s new roommate includes just three groups.
The movie does not live up to the eternally enchanting music, but it serves as an enjoyable delivery system for experiencing it again, which is magic enough.
Now playing in theaters.
Jack Wolfe as Tim Walker / Prince Tamino
F. Murray Abraham as Dr. Longbow
Iwan Rheon as Papageno
Amir Wilson as Anton Milanesi
Stéfi Celma as Papagena
Steffen Mennekes as Priest
Niamh McCormack as Sophiie
Waldemar Kobus as Mr. Suessmayr