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Schumacher's Stylish Phantom

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: January 7, 2005 | Publication: Free-Times (Columbia SC) | Author: James Scott

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Five Stars
5 = Move over, Godfather, 4 = Angling for an Oscar, 3 = Pretty good, but it's no frickin' Star Wars, 2 = Worth it if you get lucky in the dark, and 1 = Leave now, it never gets any better.

Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera, set in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, has been filmed multiple times, most notably in 1925 starring the legendary Lon Chaney. Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running musical stage adaptation enjoyed its own tortuous path to the screen, but it has finally arrived with director Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth) at the helm.

I don't often enjoy musical theater, and I believe that our culture has gone far enough in taking horror characters like The Phantom and Count Dracula and retooling them as misunderstood romantic heroes. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Schumacher's Phantom and I recommend it unreservedly, especially to devotees of Webber's play. I can't imagine what more Webber fans could want from a cinematic version about the ghostly madman who haunts the opera house, enraged when his young protégé, Christine, falls in love with the institution's new sponsor, the handsome young Viscount Raoul.

Much of my admiration comes from Schumacher's unerring visual sensibility, which is as lush as Webber's music. Visually, Phantom is easily the richest film of the year, thanks to production designer Anthony Pratt (Band of Brothers). The exquisite detail in the sets, costumes and props is alone worth the price of admission, and Schumacher knows precisely how to light each scene as though it were a painting by one of the old masters, especially shots of the famous chandelier, reportedly a $1.5 million prop.

Schumacher's also got the perfect cast. Eighteen-year-old Emmy Rossum (Mystic River) not only demonstrates acting talent as Christine, but also the requisite lungs to sing Webber's score. Patrick Wilson (The Alamo) gets the short end as Raoul, who's pretty much a 19th-century Ken doll (let's face it, the monster is always the most interesting character in these Beauty and the Beast fables). But Schumacher's casting of Gerard Butler as The Phantom could be his best decision. Butler has appeared in movies such as Timeline and Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, but it was his titular role in Dracula 2000 that brought him to Schumacher's attention. My wife looked at me while Butler was onscreen and whispered, "Bond ... James Bond," and she's right. Butler could assuage my sadness at seeing Pierce Brosnan "retired" out of the role.

Yet, if there's anything fatal to this incarnation of The Phantom of the Opera, it's that Butler is so handsome and charismatic that, even with a plastic mask covering a quarter of his face, I question whether a woman would choose the vapid Raoul over such a committed and passionate lover. Of course, if Christine said, "Sure, I'll marry you instead of this brainless hunk," there would be no story worth telling.

Despite his technical and artistic proficiency, there's a stylistic device Schumacher uses that irritates me. Perhaps in homage to the immortal silent version, Schumacher starts his film in black and white, as aged versions of some of the characters revisit the abandoned opera house some 50 years after the main story. There's a brilliant sequence following the auction block unveiling of the old chandelier in which Schumacher morphs the dusty, cobwebbed opera house back to the days of its glory, and this sequence alone makes the movie worth seeing. But after this flashback, Schumacher continues to jump back to these framing scenes throughout the film. The device works at the beginning and the end, but mostly it's just intrusive and unnecessary.

This is a petty quibble, though, in the face of so much done right, including hilarious supporting performances from Simon Callow (Bright Young Things) and Ciarán Hinds (Calendar Girls) as the new proprietors of the opera house, especially as they deal with their narcissistic prima donna, played by Minnie Driver (Ella Enchanted), obviously having a ball hamming it up. There are some brilliant visual metaphors, too, such as when The Phantom, broken-hearted, crumbles a rose in his hand, the red petals falling onto pristine white snow like drops of blood, suggesting the carnage that will result from his rage.

Some critics have charged that The Phantom of the Opera is long, bombastic, indulgent and that it implausibly stretches a thin dramatic premise. There's always two sides to a story, and here's my rebuttal: In addition to being one of the most gorgeous movies I've ever seen, The Phantom surely captures the essence of Webber's play as well as any film possibly could. And how could I dislike a movie that receives a standing ovation, with the audience singing or humming parts of its score? If the purpose of going to a movie (as opposed to watching one in your own lair) is to have a shared emotional experience, audiences at The Phantom of the Opera are obviously sharing a joyous one.


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