Phantom of the Opera, The (2004)

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Beautiful dancer Christine Daae is promoted to lead roles at a Paris opera under the tutelage and influence of her ‘angel of music.’ But when he chooses to reveal his love to her, he also reveals himself to be the half-crazed opera ghost living within the bowels of the building, making demands of the opera’s new owners. Christine must choose between her love for childhood sweetheart Raoul and her strange fascination with the Phantom.

There is a moment at the start of Phantom of the Opera when the black-and-white framing scene (in which the opera’s effects are being auctioned off) bursts back in time, bringing the opera house back to vivid, colourful life to the accompaniment of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s famous organ chord introduction. Sadly, it is one of the rare moments of drama in a film that looks the part but fails on all other grounds. I have not seen a stage production of this musical, but this review comes the same week as watching the film version of Mamma Mia! and what that piece may lack in sophistication, it more than makes up for in getting the viewer involved.

Phantom the film suffers because Joel Schumacher fails to get a feel for the mood of the work, and this appears to affect the performance of the actors. The opening is fairly efficient at introducing the protagonists: new opera owners Andre and Firmin (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) accompany new patron Raoul (Patrick Wilson) to rehearsals of a noisy opera called Hannibal, in which the temperamental diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) is the star. Mme Giry (Miranda Richardson) guides the ballet girls, including her daughter Meg (Jennifer Ellison) and Raoul’s former acquaintance Christine (Emmy Rossum); Mme Giry may know more than she lets on about the ‘Opera Ghost,’ who soon makes his demands known. When Carlotta goes off in a strop, Christine fills in and a star is born.

All well and good – except that these scenes, like the whole film, are played with such an unevenness of tone that you don’t know who or what you should care for. Callow and Hinds go for light comedy, whilst Driver pitches at full-on Italian pantomime; Richardson’s reactions are underplayed, brooding with a thick French accent, but her daughter is quite clearly a Scouser and her friend American. The accents wouldn’t matter so much if the acting was better, but Rossum and Wilson deliver such flimsy, wooden performances it’s a wonder they don’t get carried off with the rest of the scenery.

Things barely improve when the Phantom appears. Gerard Butler is the man in the mask and is a tall, imposing figure; yet – and this may not be his fault – he generates very little chemistry with Rossum, who remains lifeless throughout. What almost certainly is Butler’s fault (I can’t imagine he would have been dubbed by someone else this way) is the Phantom’s singing voice which, whenever asked to go higher than mid-tenor range, turns unpleasantly shouty.

Accordingly, moments which are meant to be musically thrilling become turn-offs. To be fair to the performers, musical highlights are fairly thinly spread – Butler shouts his way through Phantom of the Opera and Music of The Night whilst Rossum does an okay job of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again – and a lot of parts which are presumably meant to sound operatic are a mess of people talking over each other. There are also a lot of typically unmelodic Lloyd-Webber recitatives (if that’s the word), which in other musicals would be leavened by the words of Tim Rice, but here only feature Don Black and Richard Stilgoe’s awkward punning.

To mention a few positives, I should say that the sets and costumes both look gorgeous, as do most of the cast. Also, things do heat up a bit (as they should) towards the climax with Raoul’s pursuit of the Phantom; but even here, the Don Juan opera is pretty terrible, The Point of no Return hardly a hum-a-long – and it is preposterous that removing the Phantom’s mask also removes his hair dye! Schumacher’s film contains a few highlights, but if you are looking for a dramatic and gripping version of Gaston Leroux’s tale which really gets you into the story, for all its technical limitations I would recommend Lon Chaney’s silent Phantom of 1925 over the one cooked up here.

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