"Phantom of the Opera": An elephant you won't soon forget
In an early scene in Joel Schumacher's film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, "The Phantom of the Opera," an enormous artificial elephant lumbers onto a Paris stage, as...
Seattle Times movie critic
In an early scene in Joel Schumacher's film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, "The Phantom of the Opera," an enormous artificial elephant lumbers onto a Paris stage, as part of an opera being rehearsed there. And that creature provides as apt a metaphor as any for Schumacher's movie: It's big, it's fake, it's overdone, it's kind of awkward. Then again, it's a pretty darned good elephant, and you find yourself admiring the thing anyway.
"Phantom of the Opera," the movie, can best be described as one hell of an elephant, lavishly staged, chunkily directed, marching determinedly on. Set in 1870 Paris and loosely based on Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel, it's the story of an innocent young soprano, Christine, and the mysterious "opera ghost" who haunts the theater where she is a chorus girl — and whose obsession with Christine causes him to clash with the man she loves, Raoul. The stage musical, awkwardly written but filled with Lloyd Webber's pretty faux-Puccini tunes and designed with great panache, premiered in London in 1986 and has since become a phenomenon; it's still going strong on both the West End and Broadway.
Alas, the candy for the ear is not quite so mellifluous. Emmy Rossum, with her enormous eyes and delicate soprano, makes a lovely, vulnerable Christine, and Patrick Wilson, smoldering in billowy white shirts, is effective as Raoul. But poor Gerard Butler, as the Phantom, spends the movie hiding his handsome face behind a mask and trying desperately to sound like a real singer. Butler's a fine actor (watch for him in the upcoming "Dear Frankie"), but he's lost here, and it's mystifying that Schumacher would cast a nonsinger in this difficult role. (All of the actors perform their own singing, except Minnie Driver, who flounces about amusingly as the out-of-control Italian diva Carlotta, sporting an accent as thick as spaghetti sauce.)
Though a few additional dialogue scenes have been added (including one that explains, plausibly, the Phantom's history), and some of the clunkiest of the lyrics discreetly rephrased, "Phantom" the movie is remarkably close to "Phantom" the stage show in its emphasis of song over dialogue and style over substance. Schumacher understands that he's dealing with spectacle here and crams as much of it in as possible; many of the songs are staged with the singers walking nonstop, so as to show us more of the sets. It's not exactly subtle — you wonder if they were issued odometers — but then again, neither is the musical.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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