The Phantom of the Opera

written by Andrew Lloyd Webber

directed by Joel Schumacher

starring Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler and Patrick Wilson


review by Stephen Notley

At this stage of Earth's development a Phantom of the Opera movie seems a bit redundant. Sure, Phantom was a huge hit when it came out in the late 80s, and any time during the 90s would have been fine for a film adaptation, but now in the tender 2000s Phantom's overblown bombast sounds almost like parody; it seems impossible to take it seriously.

Nonetheless, the Phantom of the Opera movie exists, directed by Joel Schumacher of Batman and Robin infamy. It's probably a fair bet that anybody who's interested in seeing this movie comes to it with some affection for the original score, so all the film really needs to do is provide that score along with some vaguely relevant imagery, like a karaoke video. Phantom of the Opera does this, so on a basic level it succeeds.

It's only when you start taking a look at the details, the nuts and bolts of the film, that it begins to clunk. The biggest clunk, unfortunately, is Scottish prettyman Gerard Butler as the Phantom. We've glimpsed Butler in films like Dracula 2000 and Reign of Fire, and there's no question he's a handsome man. But good looks aren't what you need in a Phantom. A startling voice and huge screen presence are a hell of a lot more important, and whether it's Butler's deficiencies or Schumacher's mushy direction, this Phantom comes off looking rather small and impotent. Certainly it's hard to take lyrics like "Stranger than you dreamt it/ Can you even dare to look/ or bear to think of me/ This loathsome gargoyle…" seriously when delivered by Butler wandering around with his hand indifferently clapped over the right side of his face.

On the other side we have Christine Daae, the innocent ingénue ensnared by the Phantom's spell, originally played on stage by Sarah Brightman. Here she's played by charming 18-year-old ingénue Emmy Rossum, who made her debut just last summer in the unfortunate The Day After Tomorrow. Classically trained, Rossum has a beautiful, beautiful voice, like ribbons of silk, perfect for the role. Her face, on the other hand, is a bit of a problem, not in that it's not gorgeous enough (it is), but in that it seems fixed in one expression, a blank-eyed fascination. True, Christine spends a lot of time getting mesmerized, but Rossum seems capable of being mesmerized by anything that happens to be in front of her, equally fascinated by the Phantom crooning "The Music of the Night" or a night table.

Rounding out the pretty list is Patrick Wilson as Christine's non-Phantom lover Raoul. Raoul is supposed to come off as a bit of a lightweight compared to the Phantom, but since the movie's Phantom is already pretty insubstantial that means Raoul gets downgraded to little more than a puff of air, and indeed Wilson looks like he made the film in between set breaks on a styling gel commercial.

Schumacher, at least on big-picture productions, has always been a messy director, building huge sets then shooting everything in cramped closeups, indulging in details of questionable taste (Batman's nipples, anyone?), and in Phantom of the Opera he never quite reconciles the ephemerality of his main cast with the earnest passions of the music. His real enthusiasm is reserved for the scenes with Minnie Driver as Carlotta, aging diva and rival to Christine. Driver's Carlotta is way over the top, more like an SCTV character than an "actual" performance, and those are the scenes where Schumacher cuts loose and has fun, adorning Driver with feathers, carrying her around the stage on a litter, getting her to roll her eyes and torture her cockney Italian accent just that little bit further. Whether it's fun for the audience is another matter, but it's clearly where Schumacher's heart lies.

Clunky and insubstantial as Phantom of the Opera is, it still has its charms. The film opens well, starting in black and white for an auction scene set years after the main events, switching to color as the huge chandelier is raised, hot winds blowing dusty age off the seats and fixtures, restoring color and light as the overture soars, a wonderful visual even if the movie never achieves anything that good again. If you like the music the music is there in full movie-theatre sound, and Rossum's voice is good enough to excuse her mindless stare. Phantom fans could do worse than to check it out; non-Phantom fans were never interested in the first place.