Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
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Unapologetically faithful to its source material, Joel Schumacher’s long-aborning film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running, box office record-shattering musical version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is highly unlikely to win over the stage production’s vocal critics. But then the film was not made for them but the show’s fiercely loyal following, and Schumacher has indeed delivered the lavish, lushly romantic film that fans have envisioned for years.
The story remains the same as it was in Gaston Leroux’s original 1911 novel. At Paris’s Opera Populaire in 1870, a young, clear-voiced soprano named Christine Daaé (Emmy Rossum) leaps from the ranks of Madame Giry’s (a somber, heavily French-accented Miranda Richardson) ballet chorus to the center stage spotlight, thanks to the tutelage of a mysterious teacher–the titular Phantom (Gerard Butler), a musical genius whose facial disfigurement keeps him living behind a mask and deep in the tunnels underneath the opera house. The Phantom’s ultimate interests in Christine, however, are less as tutor than suitor; in her he sees the only one who can (to paraphrase a lyric) lead him, save him from his solitude. But when Raoul (Patrick Wilson), Christine’s childhood sweetheart, re-enters her life, a triangle is formed, and deadly consequences are to be paid.
One major, controversial deviation Schumacher and Lloyd Webber make from the stage version is the much-publicized decision to go “younger and sexier” with the casting–a move that turns out to pay off handsomely, enhancing and enriching the material. A common (and valid) criticism of the stage version is that Christine comes off as a complete twit for so easily fooled that the Phantom is an angel sent to her by her late father. By casting 16-year-old (at the start of filming) Rossum and hence aging the character down from its typically pushing-30 (and sometimes even pushing-40) stage portrayers, this crucial linchpin of the plot is all the more easy to swallow. Christine’s lingering issues with her father’s death nine years prior make sense at this “not a girl, not yet a woman” age, as is her easily being duped; amid the confusion of adolescence, it makes sense that she would be so willing–and, more crucially, need–to believe she still has some tangible connection to and guidance from her father.
This adjustment creates a ripple effect through the whole story. Granted, Christine was always at the center of Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” as he famously wrote the part as a showcase for the talents of his then-wife and -muse, Sarah Brightman; however, the film refocuses the piece from the role of Christine to the character of Christine. Leroux’s original plot hook is still there, but in the film the triangle plays as an external enactment of the battle between Christine’s awakening internal impulses: idealistic, hearts-and-flowers romance with Raoul versus the more primal, uncontrollable urges unleashed by the Phantom. The conflict and confusion is superbly realized in the film’s best number, the climactic scorcher “The Point of No Return.” As she and the Phantom take to the stage together for an erotically-charged duet in the Phantom-penned production “Don Juan Triumphant,” a stunningly coquettish and liberated Christine appears a bit too eager to flirt with physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual corruption for Raoul and the rest of the aghast audience’s comfort.
Schumacher’s savvy casting choices clearly underscore the contrasts between the two suitors/sides. As the Phantom, Butler lacks a certain ethereal quality in both voice and presence to fully sell the whole “Angel of Music” ruse, particularly in his first appearances, but the character and performance really take shape after the Phantom discovers Christine’s love for Raoul. Butler’s gruffness and raw vocal style reflect not only the Phantom’s anger and fury but the soul-deep passion and pain that fuels it. Butler’s unconventional take on the part may be less father figure than older peer, but he projects enough maturity over Christine to be a believable mentor while still young enough to be a viable paramour. By comparison, Wilson’s sweet, croony Raoul may come off a little slickly, blandly polished, but that seems to be the point. In the transition to stage to screen the character is now far more proactive, prone to swashbuckling derring-do with a flowing, über-pretty boy mane to match, playing up the character as a safe, predictable White Knight romantic archetype.
Rossum, however, never makes one forget this is essentially Christine’s story. If Schumacher and Lloyd Webber’s shared inclination for bombast is perfectly suited for an adolescent’s hyperbolic emotional struggles and outbursts, then Rossum lends Christine’s plight grounding emotional authenticity. She infuses the music and the character with shadings impossible to project and capture from the distance of a legit stage, be it Christine’s growth from nervous, shy chorus girl to confident adult performer before our very eyes in her first number, “Think of Me”; playing the well-meaning innocent grappling with her burgeoning sexuality and undeniable attraction to the dark side in the aforementioned “The Point of No Return”; or the act of emotional alchemy she performs with the graveside lament “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” The latter song, while melancholy both lyrically and melodically, always came off on stage and in recording more as just a late-in-show, pull-out-the-stops powerhouse number for Christine. Seeing and hearing Rossum take on the song, it is a revelation, a desperate cry for help from a frightened, lonely, unsure young woman in need of someone who truly understands her. (For contrast, watch Brightman in Ken Russell’s similarly staged 1987 music video for the song; she hits all the right notes vocally, but you never once get a feeling for the true meaning behind the words.)
While the sweeping romance is what has undoubtedly contributed to “Phantom”‘s remarkable longevity in the theatre, it is also a lot of fun to watch, and the film does boast some appealing light touches. Particularly entertaining is Minnie Driver’s deliciously hammy turn as Carlotta, the Opera Populaire’s resident diva whose star takes a tumble thanks to Christine’s rising star and the Phantom’s machinations; credit also must go to Margaret Preece, who provides Carlotta’s amusingly overblown, ear-piercing vocals. Although their roles have been slightly pared down from the stage version, Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow strike some pleasing comic relief notes as the theatre’s exasperated new managers, Messrs. Firmin and André, respectively. Schumacher does make a grave miscalculation, however, in translating one of the stage show’s most exuberant and extravagant numbers, the New Year’s party-set “Masquerade.” His pantomime concept for the number may have looked good on paper, but this is one instance where the flamboyance becomes tacky and wrongheaded. Taking the mime motif a bit too literally, the dancers’ costumes are largely black and white, going against the literally colorful lyrics (“grinning yellows, spinning reds”; “flash of mauve, dash of puce”); and worst of all, the vogue-heavy choreography immediately takes one out of the film’s meticulously created 1870 reality and into less-than-magical memories of early-’90s era Madonna.
For the most part, though, Schumacher and production designer Anthony Pratt don’t so much translate than duplicate the look director Harold Prince and production designer Maria Bjornson created for the stage version. While this fidelity to the original production is admirable, it also keeps the film from truly soaring as a distinct work in its own right. Perhaps Schumacher, knowing how Prince’s vision so impressively transitioned between scenes and scenery with almost-cinema-ready fluidity, felt more attention needed to be paid to streamlining the libretto into a screenplay, and he indeed corrects some structural and dramatic issues with Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s book. An extended flashback sequence adds vital backstory to the Phantom; the 1919-set framing device is more effectively developed; the trademark chandelier crash has been moved from the live theater-friendly midpoint to a more film-appropriate third act position. He even throws in some inspired twists on old nuggets, such as turning Christine and Raoul’s centerpiece love theme/wedding song staple “All I Ask of You” on its head by constantly showing the Phantom’s stunned and ultimately devastated reaction to this heart-on-sleeve romantic declaration.
But cinema is a largely visual medium, and however sumptuous its production design is, visually “Phantom” is a bit flattened by Schumacher’s overall soundstage-y aesthetic. He has gone on record to say that he wanted everything to appear theatrical and not particularly realistic–maybe an interesting idea in theory, but given “Phantom”‘s roots as a stage show, the movie hence too often appears like a filmed stage play, however inventively cinematographer John Mathieson’s camera sometimes navigates the ornately-decorated space. There’s a difference between a film of the stage show and a filmed document of the stage show, and after the sensory overload of a rousing and highly kinetic opening scene and some creative, only-in-the-movies effects work in the first major number (“Think of Me”), what Schumacher has made ultimately leans more toward the latter.
As such, it’s doubtful that this “Phantom” will convert many experiencing Lloyd Webber’s grand opus for the first time into (as they are called) “Phans.” Lloyd Webber’s music itself is also an issue. Being a fan of the show, it follows that I like the score and lyrics (by Charles Hart), and given how this show has been absorbed into the mainstream more than any other in recent theater history, some of the melodies will hold at least vague familiarity with the moviegoing masses. But Lloyd Webber’s style (unashamedly melodramatic, heavily reprised melodies, and–a huge dealbreaker for some–almost entirely sung-through) has been known to provoke just as many strongly negative reactions as positive, and despite reorchestrations for the film played by a no less than hundred-piece orchestra, skeptics probably have a better chance of being convinced by hearing it performed live.
That said, open-minded moviegoers, shameless romantics, and, of course, existing Phans should have little difficulty in letting their darker (or, given the ultimately tender spirit of the material, lighter?) side give in to the power of the music of the night. There’s a reason why Lloyd Webber’s live adaptation has consistently packed in crowds for going on two decades and served as the “entry drug” for future fans of live theater (such as myself), and it’s the much like the reason why Christine is so taken by the Phantom himself: it conjures up this unexplainable spell that leaves audiences sad, sentimental, swooning, smiling–in some way transported and moved. Now, in Schumacher’s film, that spell lives on.
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Posted on December 22, 2004 in Reviews by Michael Dequina
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