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The rocky Phantom picture show

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: December 5, 2004 | Publication: Scotland on Sunday | Author: Jessica Winter
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The Phantom of the Opera
Director: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Gerard Butler
Running time: 143 minutes

THE numbers are staggering. As many as 65,000 performances around the world for some 80 million people, ringing up $3.2bn in box-office receipts. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical The Phantom of the Opera, which opened in London on October 9, 1986, is a cultural phenomenon that cries out for a multiplex adaptation.

Alas, Joel Schumacher’s 143-minute rendition hints that something intangible has been lost in translation from stage to screen. Gassy and airless, stiff-backed and bathetic, the movie at least makes a worthy enough addition to a singular directorial filmography that includes A Time to Kill, 8MM, and Batman and Robin. Schumacher’s folly may not break the kinds of ticket-sale records that the theatre production handily demolished, but surely the celluloid Phantom sets a new bar for discretionary spending - the candelabra budget alone on this doozy could cover the utility bill for one of the smaller EU member states.

On paper, at least, The Phantom of the Opera - originally adapted from the 1911 novel by Gaston Leroux, and here co-written by Lloyd Webber and Schumacher - is a promising cross-pollination, marrying the backstage musical to the tale of ‘amour fou’. In 1870 Paris, the titular genius (Glasgow native Gerard Butler) makes his solitary home in the waterlogged bowels of the Opera Populaire. Donning a half-mask to conceal a burn-like facial disfigurement which leaves him looking somewhat like Robert De Niro towards the end of Cape Fear, the Phantom tacitly serves as the Opera’s composer-director with the cooperation of ballet choreographer Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson). He has obsessively mentored the talented chorus girl Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum, who played Sean Penn’s murdered daughter in Mystic River) since her childhood. Christine in turn believes the Phantom to be the stern "Angel of Music" who became her celestial guardian after the death of her father.

The Phantom acts as the Opera’s deus ex machina whenever the fancy strikes him, his punitive reputation preceding him like the ascending-and-descending motif of five organ notes that herald his every whim and sneeze. He arranges for glass-shattering diva La Carlotta (Minnie Driver, attacking the cartoonish part with grimacing fervour) to miss a performance, clearing the path for Christine’s triumphant solo debut. Christine inadvertently inflames the Phantom’s wrath, however, when she responds to the romantic overtures of the Opera’s rich patron, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), whose courtly virtues are manifest in his blandly handsome features and his shiny, bouncy, Jennifer Aniston-calibre head of hair.

The movie reaches a point of no return when the blighted queenmaker whisks his pliant muse from her bouquet-stuffed dressing room and leads her through copious dry ice and candlelit Venetian-style waterways to his dungeon lair, where the bully berates her in song - "SING FOR MEEEE!" - and paws at her until she faints. "All must pay homage to my myooo-zic," he intones, even though the booming drum machine, keyboard pulses, and mechanical handclaps are grafted directly out of the mid-1980s synth-rock playbook.

Uneven sound design further compromises the dated music, which reverberates as though it’s blaring from the Phantom’s top-of-the-line 1870 stereo system.

To Sir Andrew’s credit, the songs stick like glue (whether you want them to or not), and it’s surprising how instantly familiar all this stentorian, vaguely Wagnerian balladry can be to someone who’s never seen the stage production.

Catchy or not, the tunes often do surprisingly little to advance or deepen the narrative: ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ eats up long minutes of screen time while Christine reiterates her sadness about her father’s death and walks ‘verrry slloowwly’ through the cemetery, so as not to reach the last chorus before she arrives at Dad’s impressive tomb.

Schumacher’s turgid musical showpieces too often consist merely of players listlessly hitting marks and notes with no real destination in mind, and the onstage scenes collapse in bewildering shrieking, usually led by the permanently incensed La Carlotta, while Jennifer Ellison (playing Christine’s best friend) flits uncertainly at the margins in a tutu.

Phantom aspires to achieve a star-crossed love triangle, but ends up stuck with a control freak harassing a confused teenager. The Phantom is too self-pitying a monomaniac to exert convincing sex appeal, and Raoul radiates all the mysterious allure of a shampoo ad, but Christine is the most glaring problem: 18-year-old Metropolitan Opera veteran Rossum is a doe-eyed beauty with gift-bow lips and a gorgeous voice, but her character remains a trembling cipher with an unexplored submissive streak.

When the Phantom whips off his cloak - a favourite exclamatory tic - and commands Christine, "Let your fantasies unwind!" we’re left with no idea what those fantasies might consist of: fame and fortune on the stage? A smouldering S&M tryst? Beyond-the-grave communion with her father? A percentage of the grosses from the upcoming Vegas Phantom?

Overlong and underwhelming, Phantom does not entirely want for fun. It’s difficult to hate entirely a film that features a harem dance with chained ballerinas, or Driver upholstered and decorated in lurid closetloads of Marie Antoinette finery for a French farce. But at once a muddled period piece and a mouldy 1980s time capsule, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber’s extravaganza misses its outside chance at camp-classic status; one can’t imagine a ‘Sing-a-long-a-Phantom’ any time soon.

On general release from Friday

 


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