Don't Worry, Emma, Ken's Not in Toronto

National Post, 8 September 2006
By J. Kelly Nestruck

THE MAGIC FLUTE 1:40 p.m The line for The Magic Flute, the first public screening of the Toronto International Film Festival, stretches from the VISA Screening Room north up Yonge Street, down Shuter Street past Massey Hall and then just wraps around the corner onto Victoria Street. And, amazingly, there's not a single hot-dog vendor in sight. What's a hungry cinephile to do?

2:00 p.m. The final person in line, one John Velchak, makes his way through the VISA room's front doors. Velchak has been coming to the festival for 30 years. "I missed the first year," he says. "I didn't think it would work."

2:04 p.m. This reporter takes a plush red seat in the sixth row, stage right. The only celebrity in sight is Airplane II and Who's That Girl? writer Ken Finkleman, making his way along a packed centre row.

2:07 p.m. Festival CEO Piers Handling struts up on stage and introduces The Magic Flute as a "simultaneous world premiere." Twenty-five minutes after the movie begins in Toronto, it will unspool across the ocean at the Venice Film Festival. Whoo-hoo! We beat Italy by 25 minutes! Take that, birthplace of opera. Honk honk yourself.

2:09 p.m. Though we beat Venice by 25 minutes, it comes at a cost. Director Kenneth Branagh and the cast are over there, not here. Not even Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, who plays the lead role of Tamino, came to Toronto. But we do have ...

2:10 p.m. Australian director of photography Robert Lanser? "It's great being here in Toronto," he says. "I've never been to a major film festival, myself." That's nice ... but we want Emma Thompson's ex!

2:11 p.m. Lanser announces he's going to throw it to Ken. What? Finkleman had something to do with this?

2:12 p.m. But no, it's Kenneth Branagh! In a videotaped message, he says he's sorry he can't be here in Toronto. He says Kaiser is sorry, too. "He's a very proud Canadian," says Branagh, noting that the tenor seems to have maple leaves emblazoned on every item of his clothing.

2:14 p.m. Lights. Camera. Advertisements for Motorola, Cineplex Odeon, other sponsors.

2:16 p.m. A very slight delay. Two guys sitting in the boxes, Waldorf and Statler in beards and baseball caps, harrumph. "We're waiting for the first reel to come in from Vienna," announces one of them. "It's a silent movie," says the other. They chuckle.

2:17 p.m. The Magic Flute begins to applause. We pull back from Joseph Kaiser's blue eyes and a pastoral scene to reveal -- we're actually on the Western Front in the First World War! The first shot is beautiful, long and uninterrupted, giving us a tour of the entire battleground while the orchestra plays the overture. Three cheers for D.O.P. Lanser! Now I feel bad for what I said about him.

2:22 p.m. Flying nuns! Or Florence Nightingales. Or something. This sure isn't The Magic Flute I remember. We're not in Egypt and there's no serpent menacing Tamino. And did I mention the flying nuns have copious cleavage?

2:28 p.m. Ah, they're emissaries of the Queen of the Night, sent to save Tamino from poison gas and send him off to rescue the Princess of the Night from the Germans. Right. I think I'll stop trying to understand.

2:30 p.m. The new libretto by Branagh and Stephen Fry is pretty funny. Papageno, the birdkeeper, just said, "I've got great moves." Also, the libretto is pretty: "I never knew that love could scream / Like fallen men on battle's field."

2:35 p.m. The Queen of Night seems to have borrowed her robes from Carrie-Ann Moss in The Matrix. Or maybe Kate Beckinsale in Underworld. Regardless, this ain't no Queen Lizzie. Look at that uvula undulate!


2:49 p.m. Now there are three floating boys. Mozart clearly was "playing the Magic Flute" himself, if you know what I mean.

2:55 p.m. Who is this Sir Astro and why did he steal the Princess of the Night, anyway?

3:06 p.m. THE FLUTE PLAYS FOR THE FIRST TIME! It saves Tamino from peasant zombies. Cool adaptation, man.

3:11 p.m. THE MAGIC BELLS PLAY! Yes, there are magic bells too. Birdman of Alsace-Lorraine's got them.

3:35 pm. Yeek. Close up on the Queen's neck mole. Thanks, Lanser.

4:16 p.m. "The Quest is over, we have won!" Tamino sings. Uh, then where are the credits?

4:24 p.m. First spontaneous applause of the afternoon for a great number between Papageno and his bride, Papagena, that ends with them rolling in a haystack. Benjamin Jay Davis, a.k.a. Papageno, really is the most fun part of this movie.

4:29 p.m. The credits roll. Oh, it was Sarastro. Now I feel stupid.

4:31 p.m. Good work best boy Mark Hanlon!

4:35 p.m. It's all over for the first film of the festival. Only 351 to go.

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