‘Phantom’ Lurks Again

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score overwhelms Joel Schumacher’s direction

The sixth film version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” Gaston Leroux’s enduringly popular musical, is literally awash in the Andrew Lloyd Webber music that made it such a mega-hit on international stages. Webber produced and co-wrote this film, which means that every note of his score has been immortally preserved in the amber of film as if it were Verdi or Puccini.

Actually, it is Puccini—major themes of that composer’s “The Girl of the Golden West” and “Turandot” have been cribbed by Webber for his songs. The shamelessness of this musical theft is not half as bad as the fact that innocent, future generations will assume that these are, indeed, Webber’s original inspirations. These tacky songs—wistfully banal ballads and sub-par Gilbert & Sullivan ditties—flood and muddy the soundtrack, with numerous reprises, as if to remind us all of Webber’s genius.

It’s all rather a shame, as some savvy editing would have definitely improved the work and made it a pretty satisfying movie musical. Joel Schumacher’s direction has a careful devotion that is a world apart from his anything-for-a-flash pyrotechnics of yore. The story has been given a truly lavish production that is as evocatively romantic at times as it is baroquely overdone at others, in the manner of an expensively produced music video.

Some of the images in Paris’ Opera Populaire, where the film is largely set, have a wondrous Gustave Doré richness to them, while others, like the Phantom’s candle-encrusted lair, just look like Cher’s boudoir. The film initially draws you into this vivid, fanciful world of opera—operetta, really—and it’s only later, with the appearance of the Phantom (Gerard Butler), who uncannily haunts the theater, and Webber’s muzak droning, that aesthetic inertia sets in. The famous masked ball scene, where the Phantom makes his dramatic entrance, is completely undone by the atrocious song, “Masquerade,” while the choreography looks like something from the Grammy Awards. As for the climax with the great chandelier falling on the audience, strangely, very little is done with this supposedly most cinematic of devices.

Happily, Emmy Rossum is a real find as Christine Daaé, the ballerina-turned-opera diva, over whom the Phantom obsesses. Possessed of a doe-like beauty, sylphlike figure and pretty, if not overly expressive, voice, she brings a fresh conviction to a role that is little more than eternally victimized virgin. Patrick Wilson, who gave a strong performance in Mike Nichols’ “Angels in America,” makes an appealingly ardent, gallant partner for her, as Raoul. Behaving like Anna Magnani in a bustle and on steroids, Minnie Driver overdoes the Italianate, temperamental fireworks of Carlotta, the opera star, whom Christine supplants, a role that comes off more awkwardly than it did onstage. The always somewhat grand guignol, Miranda Richardson, appropriately lurks like Blanche Yurka as the sinister ballet mistress who holds the Phantom’s secret. It’s a definite weakness of the script that she is given far more back story than the Phantom himself.

What really made the stage version of this musical work was Michael Crawford, with his theatrically romantic commitment and eerie choirboy’s voice investing his songs with a hushed intensity. It was a career-morphing casting coup that forever transformed him from the eternal, skinny juvenile of “Hello, Dolly!” into a modern-day matinee idol. Without a proper Phantom, the entire enterprise sags, and, unfortunately, Butler is a disaster here. There’s a bland, soap opera factor about his masked look and acting, in chest-baring piratical blouson, and the sound department has thunderously enhanced his unmemorable voice. He has little chemistry with Rossum’s Christine, and, when she finally unmasks him, his slightly warped makeup is a definite letdown, after Lon Chaney’s scarifying mien in the unforgettable 1925 silent, or even Claude Rains’ in the garish Technicolor 1945 version.

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