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A winning 'Phantom'

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: December 22, 2004 | Publication: The Washington Times | Author: Movie Critic

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The movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" finally arrives in theaters today in splendid condition, 18 years after the London premiere of the stage musical.

There has never been a more romantically potent or compelling movie operetta. One highlight in particular, the superlative duet "All I Ask of You," the first-act closer, soars beyond anything of a comparable nature in the history of film musicals. The endearing memory of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy never approached the ardor and pathos of this love song. Don't forget to bring spare handkerchiefs.

Three young actor-singers should emerge as promising stars and lasting images of lyrical heartbreak and sacrifice: Gerard Butler as the Phantom, a disfigured musical genius-despot haunting a Parisian theater; Patrick Wilson as Raoul, the theater's eminently respectable and eligible patron; and the awesomely precocious and beautiful Emmy Rossum as Christine, a sublime ingenue from the corps de ballet suddenly endowed with an extraordinary singing voice and caught between two suitors one powerfully sinister and the other powerfully reassuring.

On the stage, Raoul was at best token competition for the Phantom, the far more imposing personality. Embodied by Mr. Wilson, Raoul makes a downright irresistible case for his devotion to the impressionable, naive Christine. He's handsome, kind, dashing and fearlessly protective, as well as an ideal singing partner.

Perhaps to avoid R-rating prospects and enhance the romantic figure cut by Gerard Butler (who seems particularly seductive when masked), the filmmakers have diminished some of the Phantom's homicidal toll while threatening and terrorizing occupants of the so-called Opera Populaire, an abstraction of the Paris Opera, circa 1870. The series of divas liquidated in the stage show to promote the ascension of Christine as the Phantom's protegee are gone in advance, supplanted by Minnie Driver as a reigning star who is harassed but absurdly indestructible, rather like Martha Raye in Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux."

I'm not persuaded that Miss Driver's antics are a humorous plus, but perhaps they'll grow on me with repeated viewings. Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds are more effective at first glance as a comic team, the junk dealers who have purchased a theater with a monster problem. Miranda Richardson is openly haunting as the ballet mistress, Madame Giry, who now links the Phantom and Christine; she has been the mutual surrogate mother for these mismatched theater orphans.

Director Joel Schumacher and a group of scenic and orchestral specialists who deserve to dominate several categories in the next round of Academy Awards have made it easy to luxuriate in opulent, shadowy, gaslit spectacle. They create a sumptuous atmosphere of ominous backstage legend and intrigue.

The Opera Populaire acquires a spacious, many-chambered, multilevel, heavily populated variety that the theatrical production never attempted. Obliged to satisfy the demanding flexibility of movie settings, Mr. Schumacher and his associates prove spellbinders more often than not.


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