Opera Populaire diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver, "Ella Enchanted") is displeased when the new managers, Messieurs Firmin (Ciarán Hinds, "Veronica Guerin") and Andre (Simon Callow, "Bright Young Things"), fail to fall over themselves for her enough and walks out of a rehearsal. Panicked, they turn to up and coming ingenue Christine (Emmy Rossum, "Mystic River"), who doesn't realize that the unseen 'Angel of Music' who has been giving her voice training is none other than "The Phantom of the Opera."
The long awaited screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage hit features beautiful, if artificial, production design and a genuinely stirring finale, but the uninspired casting of the love triangle leads and the blandness of many of the musical's songs make for many dead spots along the way.
As on the stage, the film begins with a public auction at the rundown old Opera building, where the Vicompte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson, "The Alamo") and the opera's former ballet mistress Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson, "The Hours") vie for a cymbal-clapping monkey music box. When the infamous chandelier is uncovered, computer imaging changes the black and white run down shell into its former, color glory (this technique is already feeling overused - see "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"). After Carlotta flounces off, Christine's audition is similarly turned into her debut performance with a 360 degree camera movement. She's recognized by a royal opera goer, the Vicompte, as his childhood sweetheart, but the Phantom (Gerard Butler, "Timeline," "Reign of Fire") is waiting in the wings.
Director Joel Schumacher ("Veronica Guerin"), a former window dresser, and his production designer Anthony Pratt ("The Good Thief") have taken the old riddle 'What's black and white and red all over?' and used it as their visual blue print, playing up the gothic aspects of the story. The bookending 'present day' scenes are literally black and white, looking like old Victorian photos that have come to herky jerky life. While the opening flashback, a rehearsal of 'Hannibal,' is a colorful tip of the hat to "Moulin Rouge," the picture gradually drains its color palette (something which, oddly, also happens to the Phantom's hair color when he's unmasked). Christine and her friend Meg (Jennifer Ellison) sing in a stained-glass window anteroom before the Phantom appears within the depths of a mirror in Christine's boudoir. After sweeping down a corridor of arms holding candelabras (see Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast"), the Phantom leads the girl onto a gondola to bring her to his candlelit grotto. The Phantom's black gloved hands caressing the length of her body in a virginal white dress is one of the film's more arresting images, but the seduction lullaby, "Music of the Night," is sung to a Christine wearing so much black eye shadow she looks like one of Dracula's brides. Outdoor scenes, on the roof of the opera house and at a cemetery, feature gothic statuary, red roses and artificial snow.
The songs generally suffer on the screen, with only the Phantom's organ-driven theme and the sexual frenzy of the climatic 'Past the Point of No Return' having any real energy. Some cast numbers, such as "Masquerade," are bearable due to the opulent costumes on display. Rossum has an agreeable voice, but she fails to create anymore more than a pleasant sounding, dewy, doe-eyed girl. Butler is a major disappointment in the vocal department, at least until he gets some fire in his belly near film's end (I'd like to imagine what the multi-talented Robert Downey Jr. could have done with this role). Worst is Wilson, who made a much stronger impression in the under-valued "The Alamo" earlier this year. Supporting players fare better. Driver's demanding diva is all overblown Italian accent and theatrics. Hinds and Callow are like a genial version of "Sesame Street's" grumpy old balcony dwellers, an amusing two-headed commentator. The great Miranda Richardson is oddly muted, however.
"The Phantom of the Opera" is Schumacher's window dressing version of the work of a musical producer not particularly known for his depth to begin with. It's the icing on the cake - without the cake.
Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version of Phantom of the Opera” will likely enjoy director Joel Schumacher’s transfer to the silver screen of the story of the facially-deformed Paris opera impresario who takes a pretty young chorus singer, Christine (Emmy Rossum), and turns her into the toast of the town while terrorizing the rest of the company. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of Sir Andrew’s work.
Clocking in at 143 minutes runtime, this “Phantom” failed to grab me for its first two hours. During this almost interminable interlude that leads up to the (actually) exciting finale, we are presented with what feels like a road show version of the Broadway play. The main problem I have with the film is the casting of the two male leads. Gerard Butler, as the titular character, is thoroughly bland and lacks charisma. His voice, too, lacks the character to make his performance at all memorable.
Patrick Wilson as Raoul, the romantic challenger for Christine’s affections, is, if anything, blander than Butler and has even less dimension. Emmy Rossum, 17-years old when she recreated the role of Christine for the screen, acquits herself quite well with her innocent presence and rich voice. The young actress (who played the pivotal murder victim in “Mystic River”) shows a great deal of talent and is the best thing in “Phantom.” Minnie Driver, as the opera company’s demanding and bitchy diva, has fun chewing her lines with her outrageous Italian accent.
Production design is obviously costly but lacks any real character or atmosphere. It’s all shine and glitter but without substance. Thank heavens for the film’s last 20+ minutes where things actually happen to catch my interest. The getting there, though, is pretty tough and, except for the fans, will require attention and perseverance. I give it a C.
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