Review: The Phantom of the Opera

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  December 22, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

The musical "The Phantom of the Opera" will always hold a special place in my heart. Not because of a memorable stage experience or anything of that ilk. In fact, before viewing director Joel Schumacher's take on Andrew Lloyd Webber's long running Broadway musical, my only exposure to the story came through repeated listenings to various cast soundtrack albums and a Christmas gift given to me around the height of the show's popularity when I was much younger and only in fourth grade. In fact, in fourth grade, I was given the task of adapting a musical I had never seen into something suitable for a group of musically-challenged fourth graders, many of which probably didn't understand the many concepts and themes of the material. I, however, trudged through the libretto and constructed a 35-minute version which featured many of the songs and some fairly stunning visual effects for a elementary school level production. Aided by Ms Pyper and Ms Nastich, I somehow managed to tell the story of a disfigured man who haunts a Parisian opera house, and his love for a young rising opera star by the name of Christine. Now a number of years later, with the release of the feature film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, I am finally able to see the story as imagined through the eyes of someone else.

The year is 1870 at the world famous Opera Populaire in Paris, France. The theatre has just changed hands to two new managers (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) and the company is in the midst of rehearsing for their new production of Hannibal in which Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the company's star soprano, is scheduled to sing the lead role. However, when Carlotta unexpectedly walks out of rehearsal, the future of the production is called into question until the company's ballet director Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) suggests chorus girl Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum). Christine gives a show-stopping performance and proves to be a worthy replacement for the diva-leaning tactics of Carlotta. All are impressed, including Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the opera's new patron and a childhood friend of Christine's. Equally impressed is the mysterious opera ghost known only as The Phantom (Gerard Butler), who has for the past fifteen years lived in the shadows and catacombs underneath and around the opera house. The Phantom has been secretly giving Christine singing lessons and grooming her for greatness, all the while falling in love with her immense beauty. Jealous of Christine's interest in Raoul, he takes her to his secret lair underneath and tries to explain his love and feelings for her through the music he composes for her to sing. However, despite his advances, Christine remains interested in Raoul, which leads him to make demands upon the management " namely that Christine be given the lead role or disastrous consequences will occur.

So just how does director Joel Schumacher's version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's take on the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel fare? For this self-proclaimed fan of the music and the hauntingly beautiful but simplistic story, at least, the answer is fairly well, and while the movie never quite reached a level of excellence that would put it in contention for a spot on my top ten list, it is a valiant and surprisingly strong effort considering the big question mark that always surrounds any film from Schumacher. Simply put, this is a straight-forward adaption from the stage to the screen following the libretto pretty much without fail, with only one or two minor changes, including a shifting of one of the most explosive moments involving a falling chandelier and the addition of some unneeded back stories to a few of the non-central characters. However, before I touch upon the elements that disappointed me, it's fitting to start with the film's strongest assets.

Before he was a writer/director, Joel Schumacher got his start in Hollywood as production and costume designer, and there is no movie that shows this better than Phantom. Every aspect of the visual component of the story is realized with magnificent splendor. Schumacher takes a story which primarily occurs within a grand opera house and the dark tunnels, trenches, and lake beneath, and breathes life into it with rich, lush color for the opera house scenes and grim, bleak, gothic stylings for the Phantom's mysterious layer. The film has a dark palette and a sort of Tim Burton-esque quality to some of the statues and building structures. When the story leaves the interior of the Opera House, he and his team have created a lush rooftop and strikingly beautiful graveyard in which two key scenes are set. Every second of the film's nearly two and a half hours is filled with one stunning visual after another. If nothing else, one could simply stare at these picturesque locations (most of which were created on sound stages) and be in awe. I for one would be shocked if the film doesn't receive some artistic nominations from the Academy, including a cinematography award for John Matieson, whose compositions fill the wide screen so perfectly.

Continuing on with the positives, this is an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical production, and those familiar with the composer should know that his musical compositions have never sounded better. Backed by an enormous orchestra, the kind that would be cost-prohibitive to use in a stage production, the musical arrangements are spot on. From the full bombastic sound of "Masquerade", which opens the second act, to the more hauntingly sparce piano numbers like "Think of Me" and "Angel of Music", to the rock organ-sounding title song, every note comes through with crystal clarity and with well-timed precision. In listening to the complete soundtrack album (not the one-CD highlight disc) beforehand, it was clear that the music was going to be accurately recreated, but one could not imagine just how strong it would sound coming from a quality digital playback system. This is yet another instance where a film demands being seen in a first-rate theatre with the best digital system possible. Although the analog mix might be good, I'm sure that most of the atmosphere and punch from the music would be lost in such a setting.

I've stressed the importance of strong casting before, and nowhere is it more apparent than in a musical " where the actors and actresses not only have to be capable of delivering a strong acting performance but also an adequate or above average singing performance " and that's the biggest area where this film loses its momentum. Despite having never seen The Phantom of the Opera in any of its Broadway musical versions, I have heard each one of the cast albums available, so I've heard the role being sung by the likes of Michael Crawford, Colm Wilkinson, and a host of others, so I have a good knowledge of what the role has sounded like in the past. Enter Gerard Butler, sort of a dark horse candidate for the part who supposedly won the role after auditioning for Lloyd Webber himself, moving him with a rendition of "The Music of the Night". However, having heard him on the soundtrack album for the film, I was a bit concerned with his vocal style and presence. Still, I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt and hoped his all-around performance would truly capture the pain and longing of the mysterious opera ghost. Unfortunately, my fears were quickly realized once he appeared on screen. It's not that he can't sing, because he can, but more that he doesn't have the quality that I was looking for from the title character. Simply put, Butler's performance is sub-par; he under-sings many of the film's key emotional notes, and in some places it sounds as though he's fighting the orchestra. In other places, where he needed to seem angry, he does so almost to an over-the-top level where it borders on being comical. The best ways to describe his performance are uneven and flawed, and for such an important role it becomes a big strike against the film.

Saving the show from buckling under Butler's weak performance is Emmy Rossum's Christine Daae. Rossum, best known for her roles in Mystic River and The Day After Tomorrow, was a surprising choice for the chorus girl-turned-lead soprano, beating out Katie Holmes and a group of other hot young Hollywood talent. Unlike Butler, who had no previous singing experience aside from a a rock band, Rossum had been classically trained in Opera at a young age, which shows as soon as she opens her mouth in her first number, the beautifully simple "Think of Me". However, Rossum impressed me before that moment with her young, innocent look, which becomes increasingly darker and more worrisome as the piece progresses. Really, from a performance standpoint, the film belongs to Rossum and it's hard to believe that at the time of shooting she was only 16.

The other performances range from good to mediocre, but are all serviceable considering the fact the story is very much a love triangle between two suitors and the lovely Miss Daae. Rounding out the leads is Patrick Wilson as Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. Wilson, a Broadway actor who has also done some films, is pretty good and can at least hold his own when it comes to the duets with Rossum's Christine. As the young suitor and childhood friend of Christine, I had always pictured a younger more handsome-type figure, but at least his performance was not at a level that made me dread him appearing on screen. Certainly, not an award-calibre performance, but not a distraction from the beautiful scenery and central story, either. Much has been made of Minnie Driver's appearance in the film as the diva La Carlotta. Driver is the only one in the cast whose singing voice has been over-dubbed. Her acting performance is over-the-top, as one would expect from a diva, but seemed a little too forced for my liking. Two of the funniest characters come from Simon Callow and Ciarán Hinds, who play Andre and Firmin " the new owners of the Opera Populaire " who do more speaking than singing but also do contribute to two of the film's more light-hearted numbers, "Notes" and "Masquerade".

In addition to the film's most obvious problem, which was casting Gerald Butler in a role he wasn't suited for portraying, the film does have a few minor issues which subtract from its overall effectiveness. The first is a pacing issue that is present throughout, but is most noticeable during the end of the first act, the beginning of the second, and again at the conclusion during the chase through to the Phantom's lair. After the lightning quick pace that occurs from the start to the end of the "Music of the Night" number, things slow down considerably. Although the story has always had this lull, it's never been as apparent as it is here. I glanced at my watch about 45 mins. in and then again just after the one-hour mark, and found the pace at which it moved to be troubling. The running time, at nearly two and a half hours, is also bloated considerably by a series of flashback and bookends taking place in the 1920s, years after the main events of the story. Sure, the beginning auction scene is quite important, but after that it's redundant and not required to go back to the "modern day" part of the story. Also troubling was some unneeded back story that added between 5 and 10 minutes to the already overlong motion picture.

Director Joel Schumacher has made something that most of the fans of the original stage version will quite like. However, the biggest question is will traditional moviegoers embrace this beautiful version of the stage show? The film is almost entirely sung, which will turn off a lot of the younger moviegoing public who think musicals are uncool. It's not stylistically updated like Moulin Rouge or even Chicago. It's a very old-fashioned-type musical and that might harm its chances at box office success. As much as I liked the film, I had a history with the story and knew that unless there were major changes or issues with it, that I'd probably come out at least having enjoyed myself. Although it didn't quite become the classic I wanted it to due to the questionable performance from Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum still proved to be a worthy choice for the lead role of Christine Daae. A few minor problems aside, Schumacher has created a movie version that can co-exist with the stage version and is more accessible to those of us who can't afford to drop over a hundred dollars a ticket on live entertainment or may not have the option of doing so. I can only imagine how much better this film could have been with a different lead and with a little love and care taken to iron out some of the rough sections. Still, the film could have been a train wreck given some of Schumacher's past directorial choices, and the fact it avoids that is sweet music to this critic's ears.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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