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Night at the Opera

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: November 18, 2004 | Publication: ELLE Magazine | Author: Editors
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December 2004

How do you improve on the Broadway blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera? Fill it with authentic emotion and keep the razzle-dazzle that people love. Karen Durbin reviews

Warner Brothers' megabucks movie Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera opens with a visual bang and keeps the fireworks coming at a heady pace. Then about 20 minutes in, director Joel Schumacher and his gifted stars get personal: The disfigured, reclusive genius (Scottish hunk Gerard Butler) who haunts and dominates the Opera Populaire in late nineteenth-century Paris shows himself for the first time to his adored young protégée, Christine (rising star Emmy Rossum). Traveling by gondola through the theater's watery catacombs, he brings her to his underground lair, whose novel decor includes bed curtains like black lace spiderwebs and an ornate mirror of the sort the Phantom seems to be able to walk through at will. Dressed in black from his velvety tailcoat to his gleaming military boots and rakishly played by Butler, he combines a showman's panache with a masculinity that positively smolders. By contrast, Rossum's dewy ingenue wears white—not the dainty gown I remember from the stage show but a peignoir with a deep décolleté and skirts that part to reveal a flash of thigh above a lacy stocking top. As her darkly charismatic mentor croons his seductive “The Music of the Night” (”Silently the senses/abandon their defenses”), Christine, fresh from her debut on the Opera stage, becomes transfixed. Her bright eyes look astonished, then dazed, then gleam with pleasure while her mouth softens into an inviting smile. It's a nakedly intimate moment—a young woman's awakening to sexual desire—and of all the thrills in this special effects extravaganza, this might be the best.

Not that the movie skimps on the stage production's more famous spectacles. Thanks to the acrobatic camera work of Gladiator cinematographer John Mathieson, you flinch when the theater's massive crystal chandelier breaks loose from its moorings and comes swinging straight at your head. Better yet is the sheer cinematic glory of the initial shift into flashback: When the screen slowly floods with color as the derelict theater comes alive, the shattered chandelier magically ascends to the ceiling, its lamps aglow, and the gas footlights that line the stage erupt into flame. Schumacher also heightens the humor of the original piece. Minnie Driver's egomaniac Italian diva is on-screen long enough to be a hoot but not a bore. And a tour de force sequence in which the theater's new owners (wittily played by Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) sing “Notes” is worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Still, Lloyd Webber's record-breaking pop opera has raked in billions over the past 18 years not for its comedy but for its profoundly Victorian flavor. The show is spooky and overwrought, with a tragic villain, part man, part monster (the Victorians were obsessed with the notion of the beast within), and a heroine whose virginal innocence is reflected in her tremulous lyric soprano and pristine dress. Schumacher, a Hollywood pro whose work ranges from St. Elmo's Fire to the excellent Tigerland, has joked that he's too cynical and corrupt for such romanticism. With Lloyd Webber's blessing, he plumbs the lower depths of Victorian society: the sadism and sexual ferment that percolated beneath the surface of all that pious repression. This doesn't just spice things up; it gives the musical's florid melodrama moments of real emotional resonance. A scene from the Phantom's horrific childhood is wrenching because it's so believable. And when Christine and her dashing suitor, the Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), sing a love duet, Schumacher knocks the saccharine out of the scene by shooting it from the agonized perspective of the eavesdropping Phantom. By making the Phantom a sexual powerhouse, he creates a triangle with a sharp psychological edge. Christine gazes tenderly at the elegant, fresh-faced count, but it's his less-savory rival who really lights her fire. The show's ardent fans may be aghast, but for the rest of us such impudent tinkering makes the movie worth the ticket.

 


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