A troubling obstacle for any musical-to-movie transplant, let alone one as lavish and lauded as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of The Phantom of the Opera, is if audience immersion takes hold on screen as it would on stage.
Director Joel Schumacher is a filmmaker traditionally known for a splashy style that stains much of his material. In what could easily have been another camped-up calamity, he thankfully lets the astounding elegance of his production team’s accomplishments wash over. And the film’s homicidal grotesqueries, held over from Gaston Leroux’s source story, carry a memorable chill.
Visuals alone make the film entertaining, but Schumacher is unable to cast the same sort of seductive spell that theatrical productions of Phantom have woven for years. There is an almost fatal lack of heat between the Phantom (Gerard Butler) and young singer Christine (Emmy Rossum) — although there is lots of humidity, given how her hair frizzes out when he sings to her.
In an auditorium, our gaze would be cast solely on the Phantom as he worms his way into Christine’s brain with wooing vocals. Schumacher frequently cuts away for reaction shots from Raoul, Christine’s suitor, supporting characters or company dancers.
Given the lack of towering presence from Butler, Schumacher should have forced the camera on these two as much as he could. The Phantom must be an unforgettable presence, always on the audience’s mind even when he’s not in the action, but Butler is not particularly sinister or suave.
His Scottish-accented smoldering is fine for the largely B-grade action film resume he’s put together, but the actor puts forth more strain on his singing voice than in his character’s tortured soul. There is one solid emotional moment for the actor, though, in the film’s final moments, his removed mask finally baring more than his facial disfigurement.
The movie doesn’t begin as one might expect — that is, with a deafening Dolby Digital rendition of the title track’s “baaaa, ba ba ba ba, baaaa” fanfare. Instead, it starts with a wraparound story in Paris 1919 where an elderly Raoul (Patrick Wilson, whose mouth is too often agape when it isn’t providing a fine singing voice) recalls his experience with the Phantom 49 years before.
Only then does the soundtrack thunder and the black-and-white picture gives way (with computer-generated help) to the colorful, bustling Opera Populaire where teen-aged company performer Christine is given the central role in the house’s latest show when diva Carlotta (a perfectly over-the-top Minnie Driver) throws a fit and walks out.
The role is the culmination of all the vocal training given to Christine by the unseen Phantom, who gave her years of lessons as a disembodied voice. Making his romantic intentions known to her, though, couldn’t have come at a worse time with her recent reuniting with childhood sweetheart Raoul. Consumed by evil when his love is rejected, the Phantom plots his evil revenge.
It’s said of many movies with an epic scope that they must be seen in a theater to be appreciated. That goes for this Phantom, but its sound design also is a powerhouse. To watch it in any theater without a pumped-up, top-flight digital sound system to capture its swirling, enveloping effects would diminish the experience.
And every one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s songs sounds great, excepting the title track, with its corny 1980s-style percussion (complete with synthesized handclaps) that last held any sort of pop-sound edge with the show’s 1986 London premiere. Here, it’s a laughably bad accompaniment for the only botched visual — a catacomb boat ride that looks part music video, part Disneyland ride.
The film, ultimately, is buoyed by Rossum’s vocal performance, as beautiful as her Elizabeth Berkeley-meets-Angelina Jolie facial features and the production design, art direction, costumes and cinematography — all bound for deserved Oscar nominations. But for all its impressive flourishes, the music of the night has been sung more sweetly in the project’s original medium.