Directed by Joel Schumacher. UK. 2004.
Reviewed by David Stoller and Shari Last
Within the grand setting of the Paris Opera House the young and beautiful Christine (Emmy Rossum) finds herself at the centre of a complex love triangle with her handsome ex-childhood sweetheart Raoul (Patrick Wilson) and her mysterious singing tutor, the tortured but infatuated Phantom (Gerard Butler) who resides in the bowels of the theatre.
As the new managers of the theatre attempt to ignore the demands of their most sinister occupant, the seemingly empty threats of sabotage begin to come true. And as Christine’s relationship with the young Viscount develops the Phantom becomes dangerously jealous and any pure feelings of love he has for her boil over into a dark and overpowering obsession.
The inherent problem with musicals in general is that they are often difficult to buy into. The very fact that a character is singing rather than speaking dialogue tends to jar with some people and often makes it difficult to believe in either the characters or the story. Joel Schumacher's film starts positively enough and with the absence of opening titles, coupled with the fact that we begin literally on stage, the suspension of disbelief is supported and it even succeeds in creating the illusion of being at a theatre.
However, as the narrative develops, it begins to hit familiar stumbling blocks. The colourful and high tempo opening, reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s modern classic, and which includes a great cameo by the usually unbearable Minnie Driver as the diva, Carlotta, is replaced by a slow and, frankly, repetitive series of exchanges. That said, the ballad heavy and reprise filled score doesn’t exactly help the pace and the movement from the lavish and vibrant set of the theatre into the murky underworld of the Masked One doesn’t assist the aesthetic appeal. Unfortunately, Schumacher is a little limited to his options in these areas - the score is the score and the setting is the setting. The workman has his tools.
The cast are on mixed form, but, if you can ignore the often blatantly obvious miming, you may enjoy some passionate and powerful performances. Rossum, fresh from The Day After Tomorrow is all sweetness and light personified, but seems to lack the maturity and vocal strength to really convince. Wilson on the other hand, really impresses as the fairy tale prince type and, considering his extremely proficient voice, manages to appear the least “musical theatre”. However, the most questionable performance is that of Butler. His range of emotions seem to be drawn direct from the Pantomime Acting Book. His sinister but misunderstood spectral figure changes to insane and brutal monster with no sense of the journey in between and with his drunken Karaoke style singing and outrageously camp swinging of his cloak, you begin to question the decision to cast him and not someone, well, better. The problem is that you just don’t care about these individuals. But the impressive and experienced ensemble save the day and their seasoned skills go some way to justifying the decision to cast relative unknowns in the lead parts.
In summary, Schumacher’s
adaptation of this chilling romance is not really an adaptation at all,
more a direct transfer from stage to screen. However, if you were already
planning to visit the big white screen for this, then chances are that
you are either a fan of the musical or of musicals in general and, in that
case, you will not go home disappointed. This is an impressive representation
of the stage version and will satisfy the already converted. I am just
not sure that Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece will gain any extra friends. I
also remain unconvinced about the effectiveness of the cinematic musical.
Extravagance, decadence and soprano. Isn’t that what musicals are all about? The Phantom of the Opera has all these elements and more. But what is most striking is the way Schumacher has managed to keep the magic and ghostliness of the theatre alive in the film. The whole allure of theatre is the bigness and magnificence created by a live performance. Special effects are electrifying and the fever pitch of grand music and colour exhilarating. Films do not exude the same wonder, especially when everyone knows all the ‘cheats’. A film can be over the top, but a theatre musical hardly ever is. So what of a film adaptation of a musical?
It’s easy to exploit the effects that theatre shocks with. The underground hideout of the Phantom is scary and enacing, but we all know it’s a movie set. It’s no doubt indoors and artificially lit, with smoke machines and infinite possible special effects in use. The same scene, when viewed in a theatre is wondrous because of the effects that we, the audience, see as spectacular. Cinema has worked very hard to remove spectacle. The Phantom of the Opera has brought it back. The red rose on the white snow, the swoosh of the Phantom’s cape, the fear and wonder of Christine as she’s brought into the Phantom’s lair. Sword fights, love triangles, music, and a hilarious Minnie Driver, this film has it all. And because it is an adaptation of theatre, is allowed the right to do so. Whereas the crumpled red rose on the snow would be the most obvious cliché in a film such as Troy or The Matrix, it works here.
Phantom is a film created with the acknowledgement that it is a film. It is not trying to be realistic, it is all about spectacle. It needs to embody clichés; but it also needs to undermine them. It is a film about being behind the scenes; about exposing the masquerade. It reveals the ugliness behind the façade of cinema, but it loves this ugliness. Just like the Phantom, it can destroy what it aims to propagate, but it is also capable of greatness. Phantom is a celebration of cinema. Schumacher has enhanced the musical without going over the top. A cinema viewer is aware of the available and oft drawn upon clichés, such as the sword fight in a snow covered cemetery. But in Phantom, it is the beauty of the scene that occupies us, not the familiarity.
Phantom is about a world
in which clichés abound, and where pretentiousness is condemned.
But it is also a film where truth and integrity triumph. And how better
to express emotion and drama, but through song and strong imagery? No-one
ever says a song is over-dramatic. In a musical about drama, even a film
cannot make it too dramatic. Since it is exploring the conventions of drama,
it must investigate all extremes and thus it can break down the illusions
of theatre, while at the same time enhancing them. A phantom exists in
every opera. There is always the darkness concealed behind the Hollywood
indulgence. Only a film which exults in this duplicity can use it to turn
indulgence into spectacle; clichés into magic.
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