The Phantom of the Opera
Director : Joel Schumacher
Screenplay : Andrew Lloyd Webber & Joel Schumacher (based on the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, from the novel by Gaston Leroux)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Gerard Butler (The Phantom), Emmy Rossum (Christine), Patrick Wilson (Raoul), Miranda Richardson (Madame Giry), Minnie Driver (Carlotta), Ciarán Hinds (Firmin), Simon Callow (Andre), Victor McGuire (Piangi), Jennifer Ellison (Meg Giry), Murray Melvin (Reyer), Kevin McNally (Buquet), James Fleet (Lefevre)
It’s quite fitting that the long-in-coming film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s overstuffed staged musical The Phantom of the Opera is the first film to come out of Joel Schumacher’s newly formed production company. Considering Schumacher’s background in art direction, long history of style over substance, and love of grandiose kitsch, he is perfectly matched in style and sensibility to Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit musical from the ’80s, which has a few good melodies, a lot of romantic pathos, and some amazing sets.
Of course, sets that look amazing live on a stage lose some of their impact on celluloid, but never fear because Schumacher and production designer Anthony Pratt (a favorite of Neil Jordan’s) have put together a world of baroque outlandishness that never quite verges into camp, but comes tantalizingly close. The Paris Opera House is a feast for the eyes, particularly if you’re into sadomasochism, as the golden buttresses supporting the balconies are sculpted into naked women who are trussed and blindfolded. Beneath the opera house is a dank maze of sunken caverns, suggesting that the world of pomp and glamour is built on a foundation of rot.
Most people are familiar with either Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel or, more likely, Lloyd Webber’s musical, so the plot of The Phantom of the Opera holds little in the way of surprises. Another variation on the “beauty and the beast” mythos, The Phantom of the Opera tells the story of a disfigured genius (Gerard Butler) who lives in the bowels beneath the Paris Opera House, madly writing operas, dictating how the theater should be run, and pining away for a beautiful and talented ingénue named Christine (Emmy Rossum), who he is shaping into a world-class star, much to the chagrin of the shrill house diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver).
The film adheres to the stage musical with almost mechanical precision, thus it has all the musical’s strengths and weaknesses. Music aficionados tend to scoff at Lloyd Webber’s art-rock-cum-classical compositions, but it’s hard to deny their catchiness and the way they meld to his subject matter so well. The thundering organs that underlie The Phantom of the Opera’s main theme stay with you forever, whether you like it or not, which may be why some people detest Lloyd Webber so intensely--he gets into their heads against their will. Unfortunately, Lloyd Webber has a bad tendency of stretching his material too far, and The Phantom of the Opera suffers just as it did on stage by having nothing new or terribly interesting to offer by the final third. Instead, we get endless variations of songs we’ve already heard, and any romantic intensity that had been generated early on dissipates as the narrative drags on for a good 20 minutes more than it should. Some liberal editing would have done the film a world of good.
The narrative is built around a love triangle, and here again the film suffers the same weakness as the stage musical in that the triangle is decidedly lopsided. While the Phantom is a compelling character--a mixture of homicidal maniac and wounded poet--his rival, a youthful dandy named Raoul who knew Christine as a child and is now the opera’s patron, is a sap. Thus, it’s hard to feel any compulsion that he and Christine should end up together.
In this sense, casting is critical, and the film is decidedly hit and miss. Scottish actor Gerard Butler steps into the shoes made famous by Michael Crawford as the Phantom, and while he certainly has a formidable screen presence, his voice doesn’t have quite the power or range needed for the part. Schumacher is also overly intent on playing up his good looks, lest we wonder why Christine would be attracted to him, so even when his so-called “deformity” is revealed, it scarcely detracts from his otherwise GQ-worthy, debonair magnetism. The only major addition to the film is a flashback explaining how the Phantom was rescued from a traveling freak show, but frankly his freakiness is so anticlimactic that I would have asked for my money back had I seen him in a cage.
On the other hand, Emmy Rossum, last seen been pined after by Jake Gyllenhaal in The Day After Tomorrow, is perfectly cast as the impossibly beautiful and demur Christine. Rossum is a wonderfully gifted soprano who nails all of Christine’s songs with power and emotion. With her lithe frame, porcelain skin, and glassy deer eyes, she is so beautiful and talented that it’s not much of a stretch to imagine all these men fighting over her.
Which brings us to Raoul, who sappiness is not mitigated in the casting of the boyishly good-looking, but utterly bland Patrick Wilson, who brought the same lack of charisma and charm to his role as William B. Travis in The Alamo. It is impossible to imagine that Christine would ever be in love with him; the Phantom’s romantic mania is infinitely more attractive than Raoul’s fashion-model tedium, which makes the contest no contest at all.
In his direction, Schumacher moves frantically between his fetish for swirling, impossible camera movements and longheld close-ups of his actors while they lip-synch their songs. He’s clearly enthralled with the beauty of his performers, and the numerous close-ups are the only way he can keep them from getting completely lost in the oversized production design. In this sense, then, you can feel Schumacher enacting a bit of restraint, as he could have easily let the film spiral into truly baroque outlandishness. Given the time period in which the story is set (the end of the 19th century), it might have been interesting if Schumacher had taken the same approach Francis Ford Coppola did with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and made the film into a postmodern pastiche of retro-envisioning the cinematic past. There is some attention paid to new technologies of the era, particularly the shift from gas lamps to electric lights, but it amounts to little more than curious background detail.
Ultimately, though, unless changes were made to the source material, no amount of stylistic playfulness could stop the film from bogging down into tedium by the last reel, as the romantic pathos begins to wear thin, exposing the film’s reliance on repetition and baroque stylings to cover over its lack of genuine heat.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Warner Bros.