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Phantom of the Opera, The (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 21 January 2005
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s staging a musical of Gaston Laroux’s 1911 novel “The Phantom of the Opera” as if it were (almost) an opera itself was an obvious decision, but brilliant anyway. Unlike the most famous movie version, the 1925 Universal release featuring one of Lon Chaney’s most astounding makeups, Webber and his lyricist Charles Hart strongly emphasized the baroque romanticism of the story, and created one of the biggest hits in theatrical history.

The movie has given a sumptuous production, shot on lavish, intricate sets, and is suffused in a tone of romantic agony. Those who loved it on the stage will almost certainly love it on screen; the rest of us may have other reactions. For all its florid, broad-gesture romanticism, for all the tender anguish of the Phantom, for all the young love elements of Christine and Raoul, the movie fails to engage us emotionally. We watch what’s going on with interest—the story may be slightly silly, but it is interesting. In terms of sheer stagecraft, the picture is dynamite, even though in the one area you’d expect a movie based on Laroux’s novel to succeed, this “Phantom” fails: the makeup.

Not just the Phantom’s makeup, but the old age makeups on Patrick Wilson and Jennifer Ellison in the scenes set in 1919—they’re all second-rate, painfully obvious and, in the Phantom’s case, woefully unimaginative. (Ciaran Hinds’ wig and mustache are patently phony, but that may have been deliberate.) In the novel, Erik the Phantom (he has no name in Webber’s script) was born with a face that looked like a skull only thinly covered in skin. Lon Chaney adhered to this description and created one of the most famous, unforgettable faces in movie history. In other versions of the story, the Phantom was born normal but was disfigured while he was trying to sell his beloved opera “Don Juan Triumphant” to unscrupulous producers. Usually, acid is thrown in his face. In the 1943 version with Claude Rains, and again in the Hammer version with Herbert Lom, the Phantom’s burns are more pitiful than shocking. And much the same is true of Gerard Butler’s face here. He’s ugly, yes, but surely there were many people walking the streets of 1870 Paris who were equally as disfigured, with saber cuts from warfare, boils from disease and other deformities. Butler just is not as spectacularly hideous as the story tries to claim he is.

But this movie is not about the face under the mask; it’s about the music, and that’s mostly excellent.

In 1919, aging Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), visits the decrepit “Opera Populaire” (rather than the still-existing Paris Opera House). He’s decrepit, too, largely confined to a wheelchair. He bids on a windup monkey, but is outbid by a mysterious elderly woman, evidently Meg (Jennifer Ellison). This sequence is in opalescent black and white, but when the auctioneer announces the raising of the fallen, enshrouded chandelier, the covers are buffeted by a wind, the chandelier is exposed, and as it rises to the ceiling far above, the theater is transformed to the way it looked in its 1870 days of glory. This is a majestic, stunning sequence, the most magical, impressive moment of the movie In 1870, wealthy, bourgeois Andre (Simon Callow) and Firmin (Ciarán Hinds) are just finishing their purchase of the place. Fed up with dealing with troublesome diva La Carlotta (a very funny Minnie Driver) and the Opera Ghost, the previous owner is heading for Australia. As he warns them that the Phantom is real and means business, a black-bordered letter with a skull-shaped wax seal, drifts down from overhead. Dance director Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) delivers it to the new owners.

Jauntily signing himself “OG” (for Opera Ghost) or, occasionally, “PTO,” the Phantom makes his demands: box five must always be left vacant, for him, he must be paid a salary, and he insists that Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) star in the role La Carlotta expects to play. We also meet Christine herself and her friend Meg, daughter of Madame Giry. Carlotta kicks up a fuss and stomps off, so Christine must go on in her place—and she dazzles the world. (Rossum really is that good.)

We learn that as a child, Christine played with the boy Andre, now a dashing, handsome patron of the Opera. Christine’s father was a famous violinist, promising that when he died, he would sent an angel of music to train her. This angel, we soon see, sings to Christine from behind the full-length mirror in her dressing room. He is, of course, the Phantom (Gerard Butler), who mounts Christine on a horse and takes her down into the depths beneath the opera house, along a Cocteau-like corridor of (living) arms holding candelabras. (This corridor seems to have been Christine’s fantasy; when we see it later, it’s dusty and disused, and the arms are statuary.) He puts in her a coffin-like boat and poles their way past heroic statues to his lair, which is likely to create a “Holy cow look at all the candles” reaction in many viewers.

He pledges his love to her (“The Music of the Night”) and vows that she must never leave, must remain there for him to continue training her. One stumbling block in all versions of this story that adhere, even generally, to Leroux’s novel is that Christine must be rather dimwitted to think that the voice from behind her mirror was that of an actual angel. Sometimes she thinks it’s the voice of her father, too. Christine is beautiful, but she’s a bit cracked around the edges.

Even though the Phantom places her in a grand bed resembling a boat in the shape of a swan, she’s up and wandering around as he prepares to play his pipe organ. Sure he must be beautiful, she pulls off his mask (which has great adhesive), and eek, she sees the horrible face beneath. We don’t, though; that’s saved for the last act.

Eventually, she’s back up in the theater which is preparing for a lavish comic opera in which La Carlotta will be the lead. This is peculiar plotting: it’s clearly established that everyone from the new owners, to the audience, to the stage workers, thinks that Christine is a great singer and Carlotta is lousy—but the new owners insist that Carlotta remain in her role.

Piqued, the Phantom—who never once sets foot in Box 5—sends another letter, announcing that if Carlotta goes on, there will be a tragedy. She goes on, and the Phantom hangs scruffy stagehand Buquet (Kevin McNally) on stage in the middle of the first act. (We’d earlier heard Buquet describing the Phantom; this Phantom doesn’t fit his description, which comes directly from the novel.)

The busy but not complicated plot continues: the Phantom longs for Christine, and is determined to make her his; Christine is falling in love with Raoul; Firmin and Andre keep (illogically) defying the Phantom, and we learn that Madame Giry knows a lot more about the Phantom than anyone else. The movie occasionally returns to black-and-white 1919, following the elderly Raoul.

This sumptuous movie is unlike anything else in the last 20 years, and though it’s reasonably faithful to Laroux’s novel, isn’t like any other movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” except Chaney’s. Just in terms of simple novelty, this film is very welcome. It’s about music and passion, and has passionate music, with an intense, varied performance by Gerard Butler, and a swooningly beautiful one from Rossum. Patrick Wilson is very handsome, but he’s saddled with a thin, uninteresting character. Near the end, he and the Phantom have a saber duel in a gray and white cemetery, adding some visual liveliness to the movie, even though their battle is badly edited in an MTV style.

Usually a production as lavish as “The Phantom of the Opera” is buoyed by major stars, hoping to lure people in who might otherwise just wait for it on video or cable. But Webber and Schumacher have gone another route, presumably trying for the best people for the role regardless of the fact that few moviegoers have heard of any of them other than Minnie Driver and Miranda Richardson—and those two certainly aren’t household names, either.

Rossum has had a lively stage career, primarily in operas, but she’s been in a few movies as well, including the interesting “Songcatcher.” She’s even in “Mystic River” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” and sings in neither. She brings it together, here: she has a glorious voice, like a singing silver bell, and delivers a heartfelt, nuanced performance. She even manages to prevent us from realizing that Christine is something of a dim bulb—we believe in her trusting romanticism.

Gerard Butler, from Scotland, made his movie debut in “Mrs. Brown” as Billy Connolly’s brother. He’s also in “One More Kiss” and, in the title role, “Dracula 2000.” He played the title role again in the miniseries “Attila the Hun” and as one of the handful of survivors in “Reign of Fire.” He’s the best I’ve seen him as the sorrowing, mournful but swashbuckling Phantom, given to swooping his cape and adjusting his fake hair. In the last three-way confrontation between Christine, Raoul and the Phantom, Butler generates the strongest emotional reaction from audiences, as the Phantom weeps.

The supporting cast is generally good, with Hinds and Callow the standouts. Driver is amusing, but really has little to do. Miranda Richardson is earnest and serious, and Jennifer Ellison a cute blonde gal pal.

Many people are waiting for Joel Schumacher to fall on his face with this movie. His phenomenally misguided approach to the Batman character with “Batman Returns” and “Batman and Robin” almost sank that lucrative franchise. He’s not a particularly good director overall, but there are some properties where his talents were realized, including “Dying Young” and “The Client.” Mostly, however, his films are known primarily for the way they look, and largely have been otherwise disregarded. Does anyone remember “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” with fondness?

This kind of property is ideal for Schumacher: it’s shot almost entirely on stages, so everything is designed to the utmost. He has great fun with a camera that doesn’t just move, it swoops around the auditorium. He unwisely presents too many of the songs in intense closeups, lending the overstated effect of the actors shouting at us. The journey to the Phantom’s lair is fabulous, in several senses of the word—it’s certainly not realistic, with huge candelabras rising from the water with flames already lit. On the other hand, Schumacher botches the biggest scene in the movie: the fall of the chandelier onto the audience. In the stage production, the chandelier fell at an angle to miss the real audience, crashing down onto the stage (to rise again for the next night’s performance). Here the chandelier also falls at an angle for no good reason at all, and Schumacher’s editing is ineffectual: the impact has no impact.

This is not a musical in the usual sense of the word; it’s not really an operetta, either, though much of the dialogue is sung. (In fact, so much is that when the Phantom in particular simply speaks a line, the effect is disconcerting.) Those unaccustomed to this very theatrical approach may be taken aback when, for example, a conversation between Christine and Meg is sung—without it really being a song. The lyrics are often as richly romantic and stylized as the story: “The Phantom of the Opera is there inside your mind,” he sings. “Let your mind start to journey to a strange new world,” he’s a “loathsome gargoyle who burns in Hell;” when Christine defies him, in song he warns, “You will curse the day that you did not do all the Phantom asked of you!” On the other hand, I still don’t understand any of the lyrics of “Masquerade” other than that word: “masquerade.” (The Phantom shows up garbed as the Red Death of Poe’s story, and here his mask looks like Leroux’s descripton of the Phantom’s face.)

There’s a very bold quality to “The Phantom of the Opera.” Leroux allowed his Phantom to be a great singer and musician (and architect and magician and strangler), but Webber punches up the romantic elements. Although we see the Phantom kill only Bouquet (and, I suppose, those the chandelier falls on), we know he’s capable of murder—Giry warns Raoul that when he’s in the Phantom’s realm, he needs to keep one hand at the level of his eyes to ward off the Opera Ghost’s strangler’s noose. But the Phantom is so deeply passionate about music and about Christine that in this version, he isn’t exactly a villain, but a tortured, Byronic hero.

Still, the film just does not engage the watcher’s emotions; you do not share the Phantom’s love for Christine, or hers for Raoul. You don’t even take sides. You know that Young Love will win out at the end, but you don’t particularly care if it does. Nor do you really care about what happens to the Phantom. This is a movie as spectacle, as showcase for Webber’s music, but it is far from the masterpiece some are claiming it to be. Still, it’s a good movie, well worth seeing on the big screen just for the bravura moviecraft of it all. “The Phantom of the Opera” is a dazzler.

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