Phantom keeps a straight face

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: December 9, 2004 | Publication: The Scotsman | Author: ALISTAIR McKAY
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The Phantom of the Opera (12A) **
Directed by: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson

SOMETIMES, during this film’s longueurs, it is possible to imagine that Joel Schumacher is having a laugh. In the opening scenes, after an elegant sequence in which a black-and-white postcard comes to life, the cameras alight on an auction inside an abandoned opera house. It is not a busy auction, though an old gentleman does make a bid for an automated monkey. The auction moves on to the sale of a chandelier which is connected to "the strange affair of the phantom of the opera, a mystery never explained" - also known as "the famous disaster". The chandelier is uncovered, and with the thunder of a gothic organ, time swirls backwards. The dust disappears and colour returns to the world.

The mystery never explained is the appeal of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s songs, and their merits remain obscure. The lyrics are rarely elegant and the tunes have the swing and rhythm of aging elephants on quicksand. Mostly, the music inhabits the wasteland between pop and opera, omitting the best bits of both. "Grasp it, sense it," sings the Phantom, "tremulous and tender." The "it" in this verse is not, as you might expect, a pork chop: the freak is singing about the night. Perhaps, with a nod to F Scott Fitzgerald, we can allow that a night could be tender, but would it also be tremulous?

Occasionally, the music abandons all sense of period. This happens most obviously during the bombastic first appearance of the Phantom. Until this point, his presence has been shadowy, to the point where it might best be explained as a disturbance in the mind of the waif, Christine (Emmy Rossum). Christine has been taught to sing by a ghostly voice, which she takes to be the embodiment of a promise made by her dying father: that she would be visited by the angel of music. Suddenly, with an ominous rumble and the snuffing of more candles than have been seen since the "three-day week", the Phantom (Gerard Butler) starts crooning. Soon, he is leading her in a merry dance, accompanied by a disco drum track, complete with electronic handclaps.

Needless to say, the girl looks wistfully open-mouthed as she is taken for a punt through the sewers. But at no point does she stop to question the Phantom about his invention, the drum machine. Nor does she feel the need to wonder about the metaphorical significance of the Phantom’s saucy invitation to "help me make the music of the night".

AN UNLIKELY romantic, Schumacher plays it coy. The Phantom’s power over the young girl is intoxicating, and he stows her in a bed shaped like a seashell. When she is woken her hair is curlier but it is not clear whether they have, indeed, made the music of the night. Later, the Phantom will give conflicting signals, saying he gave the girl his music, and helped her song "take wing". Yet, while crushing rose petals, he will also be heard to complain: "You will curse the day you did not do all that the Phantom asked of you."

His bad temper is partly explained by the unmasking of his deformity. His social dysfunction is also a result of being raised in the basement of the opera house by Miranda Richardson, who - unlike the other French people here - speaks in the Franglais of Inspector Clouseau: "I ’id ’im from ze world and eet’s cruelties."

The story is a picture book romance, in which ze Phantom never stands a chance. The poor fool lacks the social skills to understand that a young lady is unlikely to be impressed by pranks such as hanging a stagehand during a theatrical performance, or appearing as a spectre from the tomb of her deceased father, particularly when she is also being wooed by lank-haired Vicomte Raoul (Patrick Wilson).

Schumacher does his best to take the action out of the opera house and stages some diverting set-pieces. Visually, the film is never less than pretty. The actors give it a go. The best turn is Minnie Driver’s tuneless diva, played for laughs, as are the ignorant theatre managers (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds). As the Phantom, Butler reprises his lead role in Wes Craven’s Dracula, though his usual good looks are compromised by the Phantom’s deformity. Emmy Rossum brings a Pears-baby complexion to a character which exists only in soft focus.

For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like.