Phantom of the Opera, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I have never been a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's phenomenally popular stage musical version of The Phantom of the Opera, so it will probably come as no surprise that the film adaptation, which is faithful to its inspiration, left me feeling underwhelmed. Truth be told, I am not fond of Lloyd Webber's style of music, and The Phantom of the Opera suffers from a multitude of problems, not the least of which are poor writing and an uneasy marriage between a gothic setting and big-production musical numbers. The tale of the Phantom is softened considerably in an attempt to keep things from becoming too depressing.

This film underwent a lot of iterations before finally making it to the screen. As originally conceived in 1990, it was to star Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman (the original Broadway performers), but those two long since departed, along with many other names, including Antonio Banderas. The trio who eventually got the lead roles are relative unknowns: Gerard Butler is the Phantom (his largest previous role was as "the Stranger" in Dear Frankie); Emmy Rossum (the dead daughter in Mystic River) is Christine; and Patrick Wilson is Raoul. It's hard to make any determination about their acting skills based on this movie, but they can all sing to one degree or another. The supporting roles are filled by British character actors - Miranda Richardson as Madame Giry, Minnie Driver as the diva Carolotta, and Ciran Hinds and Simon Callow as Firmin and Andre, the new owners of the Opera House.

Although the storyline has been made more coherent for the movie than it is in the stage version, it nevertheless helps to have seen a previous version of the film or to have read the novel upon which it is based. In brief, Christine is an up-and-coming opera star who has taken extensive voice lessons from the mysterious Phantom, who lurks in caves beneath the Opera House. The Phantom loves Christine, but will not allow her to see his scarred face, for fear that she will reject him. His goal is to make her a star, but, when he achieves that, he loses her to Raoul, her childhood sweetheart who is now the Opera House's patron. But, once he realizes Christine has slipped away, the Phantom's jealousy has terrible consequences.

I won't say this is the worst version on the roughly half-dozen cinematic editions of the story to-date, but it's near the bottom, and doesn't come close to either the silent classic with Lon Chaney or the 1943 re-make with Claude Rains. Of course, its goals are different. When he penned the musical, Lloyd Webber was not striving for shock and horror. Instead, he wanted to emphasize the romance and operatic elements. He's successful when it comes to the latter - there's a lot of singing, even to the point where whole passages of dialogue are sung rather than recited. The love story is a failure, however. While some emotion is evident between Christine and the Phantom, Raoul is as boring a hero as has ever graced the screen. Added to that, Butler has screen presence - a quality that Wilson lacks. It's impossible to believe that Christine feels anything for Raoul (or vice versa), and The Phantom of the Opera's insistence upon fostering this dead-end love affair is its downfall.

The director is Joel Schumacher, who, despite commercial successes like Batman Forever, Falling Down, and Phone Booth, would seem an unlikely choice for a gothic musical melodrama. There's nothing special about Schumacher's approach; he presents the material in a mostly straightforward manner. He offers one tremendous visual image, when the chandelier is raised and the Opera House returns to its splendor of 1870 (the movie is bookended with unnecessary scenes in the 1910s). Beyond that, Schumacher does little more than highlight the singers, dancers, costumes and set design. One could argue that, for a movie like that, his approach is the correct one.

It's questionable whether fans of the musical will be enamored with this adaptation. The energy that characterizes a live performance is absent, resulting in a production that often feels sluggish and slow-moving. And the absence of a cast associated with the stage version may aggravate any who feel their favorites have been slighted. Those who have not seen the stage version are unlikely to be won over by this Schumacher/Lloyd Webber collaboration. It's the kind of motion picture that typifies why movie musicals are rarely made - were it not for the huge built-in audience, it's hard to imagine many patrons paying to see this.

Ultimately, however, appreciation of The Phantom of the Opera will hinge upon your opinion of Lloyd Webber's skills as a composer. The film, like the stage show, contains one great baroque theme and a lot of unmemorable drivel. If you are partial to Lloyd Webber's style, you will at least find The Phantom of the Opera palatable. If not, then this will be an endurance contest. This isn't really a film that needs reviewing. Going in, most viewers will know what to expect, and Schumacher's unchallenging style delivers without frills. For some, this will be a new way to enjoy a favorite musical. But for those like me, it's a mostly tedious way to kill 140 minutes.

Phantom of the Opera, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2004)

Run Time: 2:23
U.S. Release Date: 2004-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1