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The Phantom of the Opera   D

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writers: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joel Schumacher
Cast: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Simon Callow, Ciarán Hinds.

Review by Rob Vaux

Let us dispense, for the moment, with the usual criticisms about The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber's seminal musical has earned plenty of fans... and more than a few detractors, of whom this writer is one. For supporters -- moved by the dark romance of a musically gifted monster and his songbird paramour -- the thunder and pageantry are nothing short of mesmerizing. The rest of us watch the same display and see only pandering kitsch, supremely sloppy songwriting drenched in over-romanticized cliché. It's a red state/blue state thing: there's simply no reasoning with one side from the other. So reiterating what half the audience already knows and the other half will dismiss out of hand is pretty much a waste of time. That's the kind of material we're dealing with.

And yet there are telling signs in Joel Schumacher's lavish film adaptation that suggest more than just differences in taste and inclination. For while at first glance the musical may make excellent fodder for the Phantom's return to moviedom, the production here loses a tremendous opportunity to deliver anything other than canned theater. In the process, it compounds what to some of us are already fatal errors, while bringing nothing new to those who love the stage version so dearly.

The differences between play and film are sometimes more subtle than they first appear, especially with something as entrenched in spectacle as The Phantom of the Opera. Webber's musical tried to compete with the explosive pomposity of event filmmaking, treating theatergoers to elaborate sets, eye-popping costumes, and even the odd explosion or two. In this sense, Schumacher's version endeavors to stay faithful to its source. Looks are everything here, from the opulent furnishings of the Paris opera house to the sculpted features of its principle players. Schumacher lends the soft glow of candlelight to the entire affair, bathing it all in an overexposed gold that renders everything warm and hazy.

As cinema, however, it's strangely inert. The camera movement and dance choreography are unduly simplistic, relying too much on the sets and costumes to overwhelm us. A few tricks are used to remind us of the medium -- showy zooms and some flashy dissolves from one scene to the next -- but they're nearly invisible amid the remainder of the production. Without something more, the elements ported over whole from various stage versions feel like exactly that: a hollow transference devoid of any substantial creativity. We're not seeing a movie, we're seeing the approximation of a stage show... which was itself trying to approximate motion pictures. The various layers are pretty but shackle the film's creativity like a straightjacket.

The cast, too, is saddled with undue adherence to theatrical expectations. The Phantom of the Opera should be applauded for casting relative unknowns -- chosen presumably for their singing abilities -- rather than letting an unqualified star indulge in operatic fantasies. The tale of naïve chorus girl Christine (Emmy Rossum), who is coached by the mysterious Phantom (Gerard Butler) into becoming a world-class diva, and who incites his passion and jealousy when she falls for the hunkeriffic Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), is conveyed almost entirely in song. The actors therefore concentrate everything into their voices, allowing timbre and musical tone to convey the story's emotions. This would work fine on Broadway or the West End, where the physical distance between cast and audience renders facial expressions nearly invisible. But film -- with its power to put us in intimate proximity to the performers -- requires far more than just good vocal range. For while the cast clearly has the chops to handle Webber's risible numbers (and none of them are strangers to film production), their faces remain uniformly blank and wooden throughout. There are no real performances here -- no desire or pain save what the lyrics convey (quite badly, some of us would argue). And since Schumacher never limits us to the box-row seats, we see every moment of what isn't happening in awkward, painful close-up.

These and other issues combine to make The Phantom of the Opera a curious paradox. It is both overproduced and under-nourishing, both saturated and drained. That some will take great pleasure in it I have no doubt, but ask yourselves this: Does this movie -- with all its money and all its Hollywood clout behind it -- add anything to the play that came before it? Does it enhance Webber's work, or take it in a new and original direction? Or does it simply regurgitate past glories, repackaging conventions that best belong to another medium? The Phantom of the Opera presents nothing that hasn't been done better elsewhere, counting on audience goodwill to excuse the problems its sound and fury can never quite conceal. Such thoughtlessness should give even those who love it a long and considerable pause.

The rest of us can just stick with Lon Chaney.

Review published 12.22.2004.

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