'Phantom': Touch of class for true believers

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: December 22, 2004 | Publication: Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) | Author: Colin Covert; Staff Writer
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Joel Schumacher began his career as a window dresser in New York City before moving on to films, first as an art director and then as a director. I mention this footnote in the man's resume because "The Phantom of the Opera" is just the kind of movie you'd expect from a window dresser on an unlimited budget. Every corner of the frame is crowded with rococo touches and "Moulin Rouge"-ish filigree. You really do want to whistle the sets.

A super-sumptuous production design is perfect for a Gothic-romantic fantasy such as this, so Schumacher's visual overkill feels correct. Like the pounding organ chords of the "Phantom" leitmotif, it's part of an arch, artificial world where passions boil, tears cascade, blood spurts and every emotional beat of the story inspires a five-minute song. It's not a boundary-leaping breakthrough movie musical like "Cabaret" or "Chicago." It's closer in spirit to "Oliver" or "The Sound of Music," a costume drama that will play best to an audience of romantic true believers.

Since it's recapping a classic story, the film, based on Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical, engages in considerable shorthand. The setting is Paris' most opulent opera house, circa 1870. Unknown to those around her, the innocent Christine (Emmy Rossum, "Mystic River"), understudy to the temperamental star of the Opera Populaire, has acquired a sinister musical mentor. Her Angel of Music is none other than the Phantom (Gerard Butler, "Dracula 2000"), a deformed musical genius living in the sewers beneath the theater. The Phantom has been coaching his adored protege, guiding her toward her starring debut, when prima donna Carlotta (Minnie Driver) inevitably quits in a huff. But when Christine attracts the attention of Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), the jealous recluse embarks on a terrible campaign of revenge.

Schumacher's film assumes that the story is familiar, racing ahead to the musical numbers with a minimum of spoken dialogue. The singers do a capable job, but the vocally untrained performers carry the show. Butler's voice sounds raw, but he commands the camera with a passionate performance. His appearance, in a white demi-mask and formal finery, set off an estrogen firestorm in the auditorium whenever he appeared. Driver lip-synchs her songs, but effectively conveys the silly, quarrelsome Carlotta's emotions, and makes her a figure of ridiculous fun.

Wilson's Raoul is an underwritten character, and while his singing is more assured than Butler's, he is out-acted by his magnetic co-star whenever the two appear together. Rossum, only 17 when she filmed the role, oozes guileless sincerity as Christine, which is really all the role requires. She's a passive 19th-century heroine, after all, the vessel for the Phantom's music and Raoul's romantic impulses.

The film's pacing could be tighter, but it boasts some impressive sequences, such as the derelict old opera house magically coming to life as the chandelier is raised. Still, there are moments that might try the patience of even dyed-in-the-wool romantics. Raoul prepares for his battles with the Phantom by doffing his coat and vest and unbuttoning his shirt halfway to expose his man-cleavage like a Harlequin Romance cover painting.

On its own terms, the film is just about perfect. Viewers who accept it on those terms will be swept away.

Colin Covert is at ccovert@startribune.com.


The Phantom of the Opera

3 1/2 out of four stars

The setup: A lavish staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical.

What works: Gerard Butler's masculine, sexy Phantom, Minnie Driver's high-strung Italian diva, Emmy Rossum's clear, fine singing (although more emotional expression would be nice).

What doesn't: The "Masquerade" sequence looks like Madonna's "Vogue" video performed by marionettes.

Great line: "Suuuuuuurennnnnnderrrrr to the muuuusic of the niiiiight!"

Rating: PG-13 for brief violent images.