Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Our rating: 4 out of 5
The tragic tale of Erik has captivated the hearts of many generations since its first penning by French author Gaston Lourex. It has been transformed into various film adaptations and won worldwide acclaim through its London and Broadway performances under the guiding hand of talented composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. This adaptation, while imaginative and enjoyable, holds only a vague resemblance to the original tale.
The story opens in the Paris Opera House where the director Gerard (Burt Landcaster) has just been replaced by two new managers, Cholet (Ian Richardson) and his abominable wife Carlotta (Andra Ferrol). He warns them the Opera is not friendly to those who impose its lower levels, but Cholet still sends a man below to discern what set pieces and props they've accumulated over the years. Joseph Buguet never returns. Prompted by the promise of music lessons by the charming Count de Chagny, Christine Daae (Teri Polo) has come to Paris to learn how to sing. Her voice is beautiful but unpolished and Carlotta puts her to work as a costume girl. Toiling behind the scenes and living in the lower levels of the Opera House, Christine comes to meet the mysterious masked figure who calls himself merely "Maestro." Under his quiet tutelage her talent begins to grow. Cholet and his wife are learning what happens when you affront the "opera ghost." Performances go badly. Carlotta's wig is drenched in itching powder during a bold performance of Faust. The body of Joseph Buguet appears and disappears. The police are too terrified to delve into the lower levels and the only one who knows the true identity of this mysterious "fiend" is Gerard. The same monster terrorizing the new owners, demanding Box 5 be kept open for his pleasure at every performance, an playing rounds of pranks on Carlotta is Christine's music instructor (Charles Dance).
Erik is the facially deformed self-professed "madman" who lives in the Paris underground. His greatest desire is to be left alone by the outside world, who would only hate and revile him for his face rather than the worth of his musical talent. More than anything he wants to see Christine triumph, little knowing the powers above will use this obsession to fuel rage against him, leading to an impressive and devastating show of violence. Christine must also choose between two passions... the terrifying "angel of music" who so painstakingly trains her to perfection, or the handsome Philippe de Chagny (Adam Storke). The tale unfolds in the midst of visual splendor, creating a labyrinth of the Paris Opera House and its many moving panels, passages, and corridors. The film is very visually appealing and soars to the heights of imagination, transforming from a fairy tale like atmosphere into one of grim horror.
Charles Dance first wins your heart and then breaks it, as Erik was meant to. Teri Polo was the very core of the film; her Christine is innocent, naive, trusting, but also ultimately aware of her own peril. One of her finest scenes is when she asks to see beneath the mask. Promising she'll gaze on it in love, she is instead taken with horror and faints... to Erik's ultimate desolation. The acting ranges from being wooden to breathtaking, as though the director was uncertain of his players. The first twenty minutes are all very stringent and Erik comes across as much more mild-mannered than the actual tale implies. It's difficult to see him go from the caring, gentle would-be-lover to a violent madman, but somehow Dance manages to pull it off. The real gem here is Ian Richardson, who takes his humor and irony-laced part and gives it life. The film is much funnier than you might expect, since Erik has a morbid sense of humor much of the Company has learned to adapt to. The scene where he quietly enters Carlotta's dressing room and proceeds to dump a suitcase full of rats on her for sabotaging Christine is priceless.
With the lack of full-blown musical numbers, the film relieves the audience... it doesn't require detaching yourself completely from ALW's version, even though the two collide plot-wise. As a fan of the original, I didn't understand the motivation in changing portions of the story, particularly concerning Erik's past, his mother, and the count's name. (You cannot have PotO without Raoul!) The changes are forgivable but also slightly irritating. With them come the film's few content concerns. By in large the tale is decent -- Erik never had any malicious intentions toward Christine and didn't take advantage of her when he had the opportunity. Philippe is portrayed as something of a playboy but we only see the girls giggling and flirting with him. Carlotta in particular shows enormous amounts of cleavage, and several times young ladies are seen getting dressed (putting on garments over their corsets). A woman's back is seen from behind as she puts on a corset and laces it up after a romantic fling with a boy in the woods.
Dialogue recaps a romantic intrigue, the result being Erik. It's revealed the man was married at the time but deceived his lover. A woman tries to consume gypsy medicine in order to either kill herself or abort the baby (it's unclear) but a man breaks the vial. Joseph Buguet falls through the slats in the floor, resulting in his death. Another man is found hanging from the rafters in the basement; the policeman investigating is impaled by a falling piece of machinery. Infuriated over an audience's negative response to Christine, Erik slices the ropes holding aloft the Opera House's magnificent chandelier. It plunges to the ground floor, resulting in the deaths of several people and the harming of others. (They're seen being carried out on stretchers.) Christine discovers a headless doll in a cradle, then the severed head hanging upside-down and mutilated near a portrait. (This is never fully explained.) A man is shot and killed. We never see Erik's face, even in flashbacks as a child. But we don't need to -- the lack of knowing makes Christine's response all the more horrifying. The movie does well playing with your emotions, making you laugh, scheme, gasp, and even cry. The length does seem to drag on in places, but makes up for it with the concluding scenes. If you're not a true Puritan -- and even if you are -- you'll find something hauntingly enjoyable and tragic in the tale surrounding The Phantom of the Opera.