Phantom of the Opera
directed by Joel Schumacher
(Warner Bros., 2004)

When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman announced their divorce, they were also announcing the cancellation of plans to bring the original cast of Webber's Phantom of the Opera to the big screen with Brightman and Michael Crawford in the title roles. It was a blow to musical theater, particularly for those of us who loved the music but were never able to see a live production.

When the musical finally did come to the movies in 2004 after nearly 15 years in limbo, I wasn't moved immediately to see it -- in fact, it wasn't until three years later, after exposing my 9-year-old daughter to the music (which she loved), that I decided to get a copy and share it with her.

Neither of us came away disappointed, although I was not as astonished by the experience as she was.

The film without question is a glorious spectacle -- from the transformation of the abandoned theater into a bright and thriving opera house to the dark wonder of the catacombs below, it is a stunning piece of eye candy. Every hint of color shows evidence of a considered choice, especially in the filmmakers' use of red -- a rose among monochromes, a masked ball in black, white and gold interrupted by the Phantom in scarlet, blood on a sleeve, a bouquet in a gray and snowy graveyard.

Unfortunately, Gerard Butler -- polished and handsome -- is no Crawford in the way that matters most: his voice. As the Phantom he is menacing and passionate and sympathetic in all the right places, but his singing lacks the soaring strength and emotive power that rolled off Crawford's tongue so magically. Never did he hold me spellbound the way Crawford did from the Broadway recording, and only occasional did Butler's singing truly move me.

On the other hand, Emmy Rossum as the young singer Christine Daae proved a breathless beauty, captivating in her innocence and wonder and packing a pure, sweet voice that -- lacking a young Sarah Brightman -- was certainly more than satisfying. The role of Christine calls for a broader range of emotions, with her love divided and her loyalties torn, and Rossum made me believe it at every turn.

Patrick Wilson as Daae's lover Raoul de Chagny was stiff and uninspired. However, the cast was nicely supported along the way with the likes of Miranda Richardson as the knowing Madame Giry, Jennifer Ellison as Giry's daughter Meg, Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds as the opera house owners and, of special note, Minnie Driver as the over-the-top past-her-glory diva Carlotta.

The lip-syncing is a little too obvious in some scenes, sadly. And I'm not sure I understand the need for recurring flash-forwards to old Raoul; although it does set us up for a sad and mysterious twist at the end, it does very little to advance the story and often interrupts the momentum.

But the musical still retains its power after all these years, and the songs do linger in the memory long after the credits rolled. The sensuality of "Point of No Return," a major Act II turning point, in particular sticks in my head.

Some critics love to deride the musical and pat themselves on the back for tut-tutting the unwashed, lowbrowed masses who enjoy it. Nuts to them, I say. Its weaknesses aside, this Phantom of the Opera is a spectacle worth seeing.

Oh, and how did it pass the Molly test? Pausing the movie midway through, she said "it's awesome." Asked again at the end, she pointed to my notebook and said, "Put down that it's the awesomest movie ever!" (She did reconsider that last statement later, reducing Phantom to a tie for "awesomest" with Neil Gaiman's Stardust.

review by
Tom Knapp

8 December 2007

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