|Phantom of the Opera, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 03 May 2005|
Composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s quasi-rock opera “The Phantom of the Opera,” with lyrics by Charles Hart, loosely based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, opened on stage in London in 1986 and proceeded to become a hit of gargantuan proportions, running for years in the West End, Broadway and Los Angeles (to name a few cities). Although Leroux’s novel has been adapted for stage and screen many times before (very famously on film with Lon Chaney as the Phantom, and into a satirical filmic rock opera by Brian De Palma and Paul Williams), it’s safe to say no earlier movie version got this kind of build-up. So … how does the new filmic “Phantom” fare?
Well, with composer/impresario Lloyd Webber as producer, one would be correct in believing that the adaptation of his stage musical is faithful in spirit and largely in substance to its source. The screenplay by Lloyd Webber and director Joel Schumacher (with lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe) fleshes things out for us a bit and throws in a few more flashbacks and flash-forwards, but mostly, the movie is for good and ill what one would reasonably expect – it’s as lavish and physically gorgeous as can be imagined, sort of swoonily hysterical in a Gothic romance way, and mostly well-performed.
An auction in the decaying Paris Opera House of 1915, introduced in very well-rendered “aged” black-and-white footage in Chapter 1, reverts with the start of Lloyd Webber’s mega-famous organ riff in Chapter 1 to show us the music palace in its splendid 1870 heyday, with individual scenic elements restoring themselves and taking on full color just as the house changes management. The new owners (Simon Callow, Ciaran Hinds) arrive shortly before the company’s resident diva, La Carlotta (Minnie Driver) – whose orange/red costume accents and blue eye shadow in Chapter 4 are appropriately vivid in the DVD transfer – throws a tantrum, necessitating a last-minute change in leading lady. The beautiful, very talented Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) is chosen to fill the slot. Chapter 5 provides a sumptuous musical swell all around us as Christine embarks on her star-making turn. Whites bleed a bit when the stage lights are hot, but once the shots aren’t reproducing a spotlight effect, Christine’s pale skin and white gown are well-defined once more.
Christine believes she is being mentored by an Angel of Music, and certainly a mysterious figure has been guiding her, but this is in actuality the Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler), a figure who hides in the shadows of the opera house but is attuned to everything that happens within it. The music that introduces him in Chapter 8 rattles in the speakers a bit (at least on my system). The Phantom wants Christine to be the leading lady always and is content to use threats to make his will known to the opera’s impresarios. Meanwhile, Christine – despite her fascination with her enigmatic admirer – falls for the opera’s patron and her onetime childhood playmate, the Viscount Raoul (Patrick Wilson). This rouses the Phantom’s ire, even as he conflictedly seeks to both court Christine and warn her away. Raoul resolves to rescue his beloved …
It’s all very melodramatic and huge. Rossum is a fabulous leading lady, with a beautiful singing voice and a strong presence. Butler has a really strong presence as well and is a quite compelling figure. There’s just one problem for nitpickers – much of the storyline revolves around the notion that the title figure is so deformed that he is compelled to lurk in the darkness and Butler is movie-star handsome. Yes, the Phantom’s mask conceals scarring on one side of the face, but it barely seems worth all the fuss. The distance provided by a large stage theater allows viewers to accept the horror of the Phantom’s visage in a way that movie close-ups absolutely refute.
Furthermore, the characters go into fits of hysteria about the Phantom – aka “the Opera Ghost” – before he’s actually done much of anything, and then, despite their fears, go ahead and deliberately provoke him. The Phantom eventually does get up to some very destructive and homicidal behavior, but it doesn’t quite make sense that the characters have spent two decades not especially worried about, or even believing in, the local legend, then at all once start to be terrified.
Then again, this version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is decidedly not designed for the literal-minded or even those whose sense of irony prevents enjoyment of unselfconscious camp. Schumacher presents a dazzling spectacle that never questions its impact. The director loves big, cinematic effects here, like the visually and aurally surrounding display of fireworks, which detonate all around us in Chapter 20 at the start of an opera house gala. In Chapter 26, there’s a storybook illustration effect as Christine is seen in full warm color, with a snowy background all blues and whites behind her. Sword swooshes in the same chapter make good use of the surround, carrying a duel through the rears. In Chapter 30, the famous chandelier crash and its aftermath (more extensive here than in the stage production) likewise travels through the rears, conveying a sense of large-scale disaster.
The Lloyd Webber score remains one of the ultimate examples of sweeping pop opera and Rossum and Butler are great (even if he’s way too good-looking for this particular character), surrounded by fine comic turns from Driver, Hinds and Callow and a thoughtful, restrained one from Miranda Richardson as a wise member of the troupe.
The DVD is also available in a special two-disc edition with making-of supplemental materials; the copy supplied for review is the no-frills single disc edition.
“Phantom of the Opera” is at once delirious and safe, the very thing for those who like soaring voices, swirling costumes and swoony romanticism in several flavors. Viewers who tend to ask “Why” may enjoy it less and those who aren’t fans of this style of music may have a hard time, albeit they may find consolation in Anthony Pratt’s fabulous production design. In short, fans (or anyone who has the disposition to be a fan but somehow hasn’t encountered the material yet) will be happy; non-fans will remain unconverted.