With the enormous success of recent musicals such as Moulin Rouge (2001) and the Oscar winning Chicago(2002) it seems inevitable that the Broadway hits of Andrew Lloyd Webber would make a comeback to movie screens. With Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Evita (1996) already made into movies, it seemed natural for Webber’s Phantom of the Opera to make the transition from stage to screen. For nearly twenty years Phantom of the Opera has thrilled audiences in theatres around the world, though I must confess it was among the most disappointing theatrical experiences I have ever seen. |
Perhaps stinging from the criticisms and low box office appeal of Evita (1996) with Madonna as the controversial Eva Peron, Webber decided to take an active role in bringing Phantom of the Opera to the screen. He hand picked director Joel Schumacher whom he had asked about the film version years ago after seeing Schumacher’s horror film The Lost Boys (1987).Hollywoodfairly gasped when Schumacher was announced as the director the film, many believing there was nothing in his background to suggest he could helm this huge film.
Many major actors wanted the role of the Phantom including John Travolta and Michael Crawford who made the role his own on Broadway, but Schumacher went with unknowns. For the coveted role of the Phantom he went with Scottish actor Gerard Butler and for the plum role of Christina, his lady love, he cast Emma Rossum, best known as Sean Penn’s murdered daughter in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River(2003).
The film is a lavish production full of stunning art direction and beautiful costumes, dazzling camerawork, and soaring music. All of that is fine and good, but the film must have a story full of passion and fierce love, which it simply does not. We have a love story with no passion, and how can such a thing exist?
Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux which has been filmed several times, most notably with Lon Chaney in 1925, and by Brian De Palma in a rock and roll version entitled Phantom of theParadise(1975). There have been no fewer than nine filmed versions of the book, most of them ghastly, and I am sad to report that this lavish mounted musical is equally dreadful.
A young opera singer Christine (Rossum) is cast into the spotlight when the lead singer withdraws from the opera paving the way for the young girl to become a star. Yet she is not ready yet and knows herself that her voice is not yet prepared for the demands of the work. In the shadows of the Paris Opera House, watching her from afar is a disfigured musical genius who decides to coach the young girl and prepare her to take the opera world by storm. He takes her into his lair underneath the Opera House and begins the process of making her a great singer, falling in love with her in the process.
Butle rportrays the Phantom as a misunderstood youth more than a monster and one wonders why he hides beneath the Opera House when his disfigurement is so small? In other film versions, the Phantom’s face is horribly scarred, either from birth or from acid or a record press depending on the version you see. Here there is so little scarring you question why he hides? We need the madness; we need the evil because that counter balances the love he feels for the girl and his ability to create such magnificent music. If he is not a monster as he needs to be, where is the beauty and the beast element which is so important to the story? Without that madness, that edge, there is not a single moment when we are afraid for Christine’s life, and the film needs that element desperately.
Rossum has a beautiful singing voice but is cold and distant with the actors in the scenes and the passion, or lack of it, she conveys to the audience. We understand why the Phantom admires her voice, but for the life of me I cannot fathom why he falls in love with her. There is such a lack of spark between the two of them I questioned whether or not I was actually watching a love story?
Minnie Driver has great fun in her supporting role as the Opera diva who leaves the show paving the way for young Christine to become a star, but what is Patrick Wilson doing?? Where is that fine young actor who so brilliantly portrayed anguish in Angels in America (2003) last year? Cast as Christine’s true love, is akin to a lumpen potato on the screen.
One of the obstacles the film never quite overcomes is the familiarity we have with the music. The soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera is the most successful live recording of all time, and the music has been heard in elevators and malls for the last twenty years. Thus there is no element of surprise when the booming music comes in, nothing to spellbind us or hold us in awe. Merging the music with the images in front of us there is so little energy, so little feeling for the material I wondered what Schumacher was actually doing with his actors?
There is a great deal to look at and admire in the film, but I do not go to the movies to look at art direction and costumes.