'Phantom' will please fans of original

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: December 24, 2004 | Publication: CHICAGO TRIBUNE | Author: Sid Smith
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Depending on your predilection, the movie version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is about as good - or as bad - as its phenomenally successful stage original.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's kitschy theatrical spectacle is now a kitschy theatrical movie, a mix of melodrama, horror, romance, mystery and melody heaped together into a cinematic smorgasbord, one heavy in starch. Surprisingly, to director Joel Schumacher's credit, this version doesn't suffer from its screen translation, and that's no mean feat. "Phantom" the stage show partly owed its popularity to its celebrated effects, its chandelier crashing down over the heads of the audience, its atmospheric boat trips through a stage bathed in smoky mist.

That designer imagination so compelling in a live theater is child's play to cinematic wizards and ought to rob the film of much of its power. Instead, Schumacher manages, most of the time, to deliver enough cinematic equivalents that echo the stage magic, so that this "Phantom" enjoys a fair outing, a credible chance to display its genuine strengths and weaknesses as a story set to music.

On that score, fans of the original will be pleased. Those of us who prefer the earlier, edgier Lloyd Webber and his more cynical, intelligent partnership with lyricist Tim Rice ("Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar") will shake our heads again at the fatuous, greeting-card lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe and at Lloyd Webber's all-out surrender to treacly melodies.

The story behind "Phantom" inspired a string of hit movies before this 1980s musicalization, including one of the most famous silents ever made. That helps Schumacher immensely: This is a ready-made cinematic fable, a backstage story that doesn't seem stagy on film at all, thanks to its moody mix of Grand Guignol and "42nd Street." It is, at heart, a love triangle: singer Christine (Emmy Rossum) torn between her Ken-doll suitor (a young but wealthy opera backer) and the strange, masked monster who lives underneath the opera house and secretly tutors her.

He is father figure, Svengali, Jekyll and Hyde, Quasimodo and devilish Don Juan all in one, and much of the tension in "Phantom" comes from her ambivalence, her repulsion and attraction that hint of unawakened lust.

Schumacher zooms in for MTV-like close-ups of the singing, while delivering a lavish treatment of the visual elements.

Black and white footage serves for a frame, set in the early 20th Century, when the opera house and the surviving characters' lives are ancient ruins. Aping the stage moment when the chandelier sails upward above the audience, Schumacher instead has the decrepit opera house cinematically returning to life, the debris, bit by bit, speedily washing away, turning into a color version of the theater in its heyday.

As the title figure, Gerard Butler looks a little bit like a masked Antonio Banderas, a swarthy phantom both creepy and seductive.

Rossum has a doll-like vulnerability and grace, a delicacy missing from many a stage Christine, and the marvelous Patrick Wilson is a fine Raoul, Christine's pretty-boy beloved.

Minnie Driver (very funny as an egotistical diva), Miranda Richardson and Simon Callow are typically memorable in their colorful character roles.

Throughout, Schumacher's camera weaves in and around the Byzantine, labyrinthine backstage areas, and the gloomy settings in underground sewers and Gothic cemeteries are matched by soft, attractive visual motifs, fetching symbolic uses of candlelight and jewel-bedecked rose stems. A clever director who can be out of control ("Batman Forever") he's comparatively restrained here, letting the lush, rococo setting and melodrama speak-and sing-for themselves.

But ultimately, "Phantom" turns on your take on later Lloyd Webber. At least, this is that rare film musical adaptation in which the moviemakers are virtually blameless.