The Phantom of the Opera

Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler in The Phantom of the Opera

 

 

 

It’s something of a minor industry to make fun of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But with this film version of his stage phenomenon (billions of dollars at box offices worldwide, and counting) it looks like the musical lord is once more going to be having the last laugh.

It’s a story we all know – a hideously disfugured creature, endowed with a gift for music, yearns for the love of a pretty, young singer. He tutors her and turns her into a star. But could she ever love him?

It’s often said that the story is a coded version of the relationship between Lloyd Webber and his ex-wife, Sarah Brightman. Brightman was the original Christine when the show opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End in 1986. And along with fellow stage star Michael Crawford she had been ready to start work on the film version way back then. But divorce, the intervening years and the southerly tug of gravity made these first choices redundant.

Through all that time Lloyd Webber had only one choice of director – so he says – Joel Schumacher. Schumacher is a director with no visual signature, but he’s a slick operator who can turn out a real stinker (remember Batman And Robin?) but he can also hit the odd,  perhaps accidental, bullseye (Phone Booth).

He turns out to be the appropriate choice here. In bombastic mode Schumacher opens out Lloyd Webber’s original production to include more backstage action. This injects cinematic energy into what might have been a lifeless theatrical retread. It’s loud, very loud in parts, and lively, with chorus girls, stagehands, dressers, dance mistresses, impresarios, all the elements of a proper backstage musical. The whole thing looks ravishing too – all candle- and gas-lit, as befits its 1870s setting.

Big names bring with them big expectations. Who can forget Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman caterwauling through Moulin Rouge! or Gere, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones in Chicago dancing like they were trying to stamp out burning newspaper? Schumacher and Lloyd Webber instead opt for relative nobodies Emmy Rossum as the starry eyed ingenue Christine and Gerard Butler as the Phantom. The film stands or falls on their performances. It’s once again a clever choice – both are technically up to the task, if a touch bland. Is there a sense that Lloyd Webber actually doesn’t want the film to eclipse the Brightman/Crawford original?

Decorating the edges are more famous names – Miranda Richardson sporting a very strange French accent, Minnie Driver insanely over the top as a diva who is not only extremely highly strung but should be. And Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow as the owners of the ill-fated Paris opera. Both are clearly in their element as a pair of very ripe fruits – they even get their own Danny Kaye-style number, one of the film’s highlights.

Less successful is Christine’s suitor, the Opera’s patron, wealthy Raoul. This is no comment on Patrick Wilson, the poor actor charged with bringing this prize drip to life. In a film/show like this, there’s only room for one alpha male. And in Phantom, it’s the phantom.

And the music? Well, two show stoppers, some cod Gilbert And Sullivan and a handful of those aimless Lloyd Webber arias might not add up to a classic in everyone’s eyes, but this non-believer was kept entertained. Bottom line: Phantom fans will flock to it, non-believers won’t feel like they’re missing out by staying home.

© Steve Morrissey 2004

 

The Phantom of the Opera – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Phantom of the Opera

 

 

Gaston Leroux’s famous story of the Phantom – who lives in the bowels of the Paris opera house, falls for a pretty singer and wreaks terrible revenge when she won’t play footsie – seems to have a strange effect on artists. Leroux went super-gothic – very pretty girl, monstrous beast, subterranean caverns, stygian doom, death by fire and water and so on. And everyone since has more or less kept up the melodramatic pace, right down to Andrew Lloyd Webber – ‘the phantom of the opera is there/Inside your mind’ cackle, twirl. This 1925 silent film is actually the best of the lot – it’s got Lon ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’ Chaney in it for a start. And there’s nothing decorous or abstract about his make-up – a grinning skull, a cavernous blowhole for a nose, eyes popping out of his face. Not pretty. Unlike our lovely heroine (Mary Philbin). And unlike the fabulous sets depicting the Opera House and the Phantom’s lair, shot in part in two-strip Technicolor – quite a sight in the silent era. Add to that a booming recording of Carl Davis’s reworked score, if you’re watching a recently restored print, and it’s quite a sound now as well.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Phantom of the Opera – at Amazon this is the Milestone version, the best of many available right now.

 

For the BFI version with the Carl Davis score mentioned above (warning: it’s Region 2 and expensive if you live outside the UK) click here.