Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Our rating: 3 out of 5
When originally penned in 1914, The Phantom of the Opera was not taken as serious literature but a sensational novel. It has spurred a number of horror spin-offs, but became known to the world as a tragic tale of romance and obsession through the ingenious musical on Broadway in the 1980's by Andrew Lloyd Webber who, after twenty years, finally has the scope to bring his massive production to the big screen.
Opening after the turn of the century in Paris, the various set pieces and props from the Opera House are on auction, a legacy of forgotten memories for those who recall its former days of glory. As the chandelier rises, the dust and cobwebs are blown away from the magnificent architecture, taking us back in time to the height of the Opera's popularity. Monsieur's Andr and Firmin (Ciarán Hinds, Simon Callow) have recently undertaken the opera's management and are being shown its intricacies by the former manager, who is overly eager to retire. Together with their wealthy patron, the young Viscount Raoul de Cheney (Patrick Wilson), they are introduced to the opera's grand diva, La Carlotta (Minnie Driver). Temperamental and demanding, after an incident involving a falling backdrop, Carlotta storms from the stage and refuses to sing for the grand opening that evening. The ever-resourceful and all-knowing Madam Giry (Miranda Richardson), who oversees the ballet troupe and keeps everything behind the scenes in working order, suggests that they replace the grand diva with Christine Daee (Emmy Rossum).
The daughter of a famous violinist but orphaned at an early age, Christine has a strong, beautifully powerful voice that resonates throughout the theatre, drawing praise and applause from the crowds and critics alike, and enchanting Raoul, who is eager to remind her of their former childhood acquaintance. He is desirous of taking her out that evening after the performance in celebration of her success, but Christine cautions him on how strict her musical tutor is. Before she can protest, Raoul is out the door to fetch his carriage... and she is not there when he returns. Christine is paid a visit from her "Angel of Music," a mysterious composer (Gerard Butler) who dwells beneath the opera house. He has taken her beneath his wing, teaching her the true art of music and vocal talents, hidden from the world due to a hideous facial deformity. While his love is silent and eternal, Christine grows to fear his dark nature. Her only salvation lies in Raoul's ability to free her from the Phantom's power.
Ultimately a tale of romance, compassion, and revenge, The Phantom of the Opera is a glamorous spectacle from beginning to end. No expense was spared in bringing the Tony-award winning stage production to film and it shows in every glorious frame. Candlelight flickering among the arches, the breathtaking first glimpse of the Phantom's Lair, the beautiful costumes and jaw-dropping architecture. This film is absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous. I've never seen such grandeur, yet it never overwhelms the actors. Everything audiences know and love from Broadway is here, in addition to a swordfight, and the opportunity to view the chandelier crashing to the ground and bursting into flame in a massive explosion of light. Most of the music is intact, but lyrics have been tweaked here and there, and a few alterations made to strengthen and modify the title track. Fans of the original recording may find themselves initially disappointed in the vocal talents if they have not been forewarned. Gerard Butler is no Michael Crawford; his limitations are quite apparent, but it's his presence that is utterly remarkable. He puts such passion into the Phantom that he commands every frame; we are so enthralled with him that we can forgive his frequent moments of vocal weakness.
A perfect foil for him is Emmy Rossum. Her youth, beauty, and marvelous voice bring to life a very poignant Christine. Their scenes together are eclectic; sexual chemistry is evident, while her attraction to the quiet Raoul is very different. Patrick Wilson's voice is breathtaking and he brings empathy to a character that normally fades beneath the empowering presence of the Phantom. The cast member having the most fun is Minnie Driver, whose Carlotta drives the managers absolutely out of their minds and leaves the audience in peals of laughter. The supporting cast is fabulous but one of the greater performances is by Miranda Richardson as Madam Giry, the formidable ballet instructor whose presence is slightly menacing and mysterious throughout. Changes were made in adapting the film from its theatrical counterpart but I did not mind them, and it strengthened the story in many regards.
There have always been mild content issues to contend with in this epic tale. Musical lyrics carry subtle sensual undertones, particularly evidenced in Erik's treatment of Christine in Music of the Night, and their duet for The Point of No Return, which is ultimately part of the opera Don Juan Triumphant, in which a lord attempts to seduce an innocent girl. In the former, while Erik encourages his visitor to give way to her senses and embrace the tranquil darkness that is his realm, he runs his hands over her in a briefly lingering caress. PoNR ends with violent and purposefully sensual embrace while the lyrics reflect on the lovers having "reached a point of no return," intimating that they are now to share physical passion and wondering what new discoveries will be made entangled in one another's arms. The managers muse on whether or not Raoul has slept with Christine. She accuses the Phantom of intending to indulge in his "lust for flesh," and he responds that his face has prevented him from such possibilities. One of the stagehands moons Carlotta as she passes by. Female nudity often appears in the Opera House sculptures. There's also a dwarf who likes peeking under skirts and mild bawdiness appears briefly in an opera.
One of the stagehands is strangled and dropped above the stage to terrify the ballet dancers. A boy is beat with a cane in a freak side show, then murderously turns on his attacker. A swordfight draws blood. A chandelier rips from the ceiling and comes crashing down into the audience, creating a massive explosion as people flee for their lives. Several men are strangled. Carlotta is hit by a falling backdrop. The Phantom becomes physically violent with Christine on two occasions, once striking her to the ground after she's torn free his mask, and then dragging her to his lair by force. There are a half dozen mild profanities and abuses of deity. The Phantom has many negative and even murderous flaws but is not painted as the villain of the piece; he is empathetic when acting for his benefit, his actions are made to seem justified through the torments of his previous public life. While he occasionally kills for sport and takes pleasure in blackmailing the managers into paying his expensive salary, ultimately he is redeemed through compassion and love.
There are many moral discussions to be talked about after viewing the film, including whether or not the Phantom was given to madness or just obsession, if we are to have compassion for people with deformities or base our feelings on their actions (Christine tells him that his cruelty has turned her tears of empathy to tears of hatred), and if the heart can overpower hideousness. Raoul and Christine are asked to make sacrifices for love. Audiences will have conflicted feelings. Some may see the redemption of Christ in the role of Raoul and Christine, who eventually bring light into the Phantom's life, but others will be shocked at the darkness pervading the script. The film may not be perfect, but for a Phantom "Phan" such as myself, was a remarkable and emotional journey into familiar places and events that have until now remained only on the stage.