The Phantom of the Opera
Directed by Joel Schumacher
This is the second time in a week that I’m recommending a movie mainly on the strength of great looks (see Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events ) -- Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is a gorgeous musical version of one of the most popular plays of all time. Most of the action takes place in an ornate opera house in Paris around 1870. Christine (Emmy Rossum, who played the murdered daughter in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River) is a young opera singer who has been the musical protégée of the Phantom (Gerard Butler as the shady figure living in the bowels of the opera – he was her “Angel of Music” as she grew up an orphan in the opera house.) The impressively rendered opera house has two parts: (a) the oppulent, gilded front where the patrons and actors interact, and (b) the shadowy, backstage areas combined with a mysterious underbelly of secret passages, tunnels, and an underground lake, the Phantom’s domain – a terrifically cool-looking place that helped to define him as this spooky recluse. I have to give a lot of credit to production designer Anthony Pratt and art director John Fenner for creating this very interesting set. Likewise, costume designer Alexandra Byrne deserves kudos for her contribution to the dazzling visuals in this film.
The story concerns Christine’s difficulty in choosing between two men in her life: the aristocratic, handsome, and kind childhood sweetheart Raoul (Patrick Wilson) and the Phantom. In the original version (Gaston Leroux’s book and 1925 silent movie classic starring Lon Chaney as the Phantom) the Phantom is old and ugly but nevertheless in love with the young singer whom he mentored. In this movie (and in the more recent stage versions) the Phantom is somewhat glamorized – he’s a younger, handsome man who is heavily scarred on one side of his face – which is why he covers it with a mask. To put in today’s terms, the movie’s Raoul can be compared to a rich, kind-hearted, but somewhat plain-vanilla yuppie while the Phantom is a dark, brooding hipster-artist -- with a nasty mean streak, driven by insecurity over his disfigured face. Christine has to decide between the two suitors while hoping that the Phantom won’t wreak too much havoc if she picks Raoul.
Emmy Rossum is an extraordinary vocalist – no current pop singer can hold a torch to her. Even if Phantom weren’t so impressive visually, her performance alone (the songs, I’ll get to her acting in a minute) makes this movie worthwhile. The two male leads are adequate as vocalists but when she cuts loose – it’s just amazing. I heard that when she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera at age six, all she had to do was sing “Happy Birthday” and she had a job. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music in Phantom , while derived from certain classics, is so familiar – due to the popularity of the play – that the film made me wish to see her in another musical – sooner rather than later – with fresher material. It’s not bad material, mind you, I’ve just heard it too many times.
The intended drama in Phantom -- Christine torn between the two men -- didn’t work as well as intended. For starts, Patrick Wilson’s Raoul just wasn’t up to the task of competing with the much darker, cooler, mystery man. Worse, Emmy Rossum didn’t convey much feeling for either of them – she seemed to have a narrow range of expressions on her face – she an incredible singer but of lesser talent as an actress. But give her time – she’s only 18 and has had an extraordinary career so far. I might add that, as a musical, the movie isn’t highly dependant on conventional acting skills to develop the story – her song goes a long way in making up for the acting shortfall. Gerard Butler made a good Phantom – using few words in favor of body language, he established the sad, tortured genius living in isolation beneath the opera.
There are so many beautiful scenes in Phantom: a masquerade ball; the Phantom taking Christine to his subterranean home – the movie is about 2 ½ hours long and they never seem to run short of great-looking sets and costumes. I also appreciate that the filmmakers resisted the temptation to “update” the movie with pop-culture references. That and/or a big-name star or two would have made this a much less risky venture, financially. Now many would say that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work is pop – and they have a point – but compared to the nature of most popular music today, he’s high-brow.
I’m worried that this worthy, if flawed, film won’t be rewarded with the box office success it deserves. Sure, the hard-core fans of the play will show up, but this beautiful movie deserves more. Emmy Rossum is such an amazing singer – that alone should sell the movie, not to mention the great look of the opera house and the costumes. Comparing it to the most recent musical success story, Chicago -- Phantom is so much better -- Chicago doesn’t have a vocal talent in the same league with Emmy Rossum and Phantom is a much better looking movie. I might add that if you’re not familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, the songs in Phantom will be new to you – all the more reason to see it – and it is a “big screen” type of movie – it will lose a lot when transferred to DVD.
Photographs are copyright Warner Brothers.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.