The von Trapp Family: A Life of Music (2015)

If filmmakers were hoping to cash in on my love for The Sound of Music, Austria, and Matthew Macfadyen, they’ve found the right vehicle in this von Trapp family biopic. While it doesn’t approach the beloved classic by any measure, it’s a workable companion piece that casts a light on the children’s perspective, namely that of eldest daughter Agathe. The movie is based on her memoirs and, not surprisingly, paints a different, less rosier portrait than the one in the musical. The principal players and events and even some singing remain, but this story is not so concerned with kids traipsing around in drapes as it is with a family navigating the growing menace of Nazism.

Maria (Yvonne Catterfeld) has a supporting role behind sixteen-year-old Agathe (Eliza Bennett), who has never gotten over the death of her mother. After the family move to Salzburg, the young girl takes charge of her siblings, content to be the lady of the house. She is indispensible to her adoring father, Georg (Macfadyen), a respected naval officer, and is not so thrilled when he announces his engagement to their new nanny.

On screen, the courtship takes all of ten minutes, from the time Maria appears at the von Trapp home, guitar case in hand, to the moment the wedded couple shuffle through the gates of Nonnberg Abbey. The sequence is a reminder that this isn’t a movie for soft focus close-ups and romantic ballads in the moonlight. Instead, A Life of Music is determined to bring the mood down closer to reality, and its rougher take makes this retelling worthwhile.

Stubborn and proud, Georg misjudges the political situation and keeps his family in Austria perhaps longer than he should. His defiance sets him up for a dramatic confrontation with the Nazis, who try to strong-arm him over to their cause. Agathe, meanwhile, is more attuned to the national mood. Her friendship with Sigi (Johannes Nussbaum), a young resister, and Lotte (Annette Dasch), an opera singer, allows her a close-up of the destructive ideology taking over the city.

This plot adds details to a familiar story and is the movie’s main appeal because by itself, it’s a lackluster pre-war drama with spotty character development and a completely unnecessary framing device. Rosemary Harris plays an elder Agathe, who is recounting her history to grand-niece Kirsty (Lauryn Canny) in America. Besides contributing nothing to the story that couldn’t be done with voiceover or better writing, the constant flashforwards are so distracting that you would do well to skip over them.

The film trades on what it knows though, and that is the 1965 classic. Sometimes this means trying to get away with half-sketched characters, like Konrad (Cornelius Obonya), the chauffeur and resident villain of the piece. He is parts Franz and Herr Zeller, his working class frustrations manifesting themselves in the worst possible way. Yet his occasional bursts of loyalty to Georg are confusing and neither earn him sympathy nor create genuine tension.

We’re left to fill in the blanks with Maria as well, who while not the film’s focus still has an important secondary role. Unfortunately she doesn’t do much besides establish herself as an anti-Julie-Andrews-Maria, a bit cold and entitled. Part of the problem is that Agathe only really interacts with Sigi and Lotte and, in one powerful scene, her father. The remaining von Trapp children are mere extras. Agathe’s relationship with her childhood friend, Sigi, is the most touching, marked by great warmth in a movie that parcels those emotions out in small amounts. There’s a distance between the family though, and it’s misleading to think of this as a movie about the von Trapps when it really is about Agathe. Nevertheless, Georg has some fine moments, and credit to Macfadyen for bringing precious vulnerability to another beloved character.

Where the film fails its subjects, it makes up for with nods to the movie musical. The stately yellow house with the green doors, the trimmed landscapes of Mirabell Gardens, the lush and sweeping Austrian terrain – the two movies link in a way that doesn’t detract one from the other. This one may be a humbler set for a humbler story, but it still captivates with little effort.

Released: 2015
Prod: Rikolt von Gagern
Dir: Ben Verbong
Writer: Christoph Silber, Tim Sullivan
Cast: Eliza Bennett, Matthew Macfadyen, Yvonne Catterfeld, Rosemary Harris, Johannes Nussbaum, Cornelius Obonya, Annette Dasche, Brigitte Kren
Time: 98 min
Lang: English, some German
Country: Germany
Reviewed: 2019