"Phantom of the Opera"
Dir: Joel Schumacher

Patricia Ducey

In the dizzying mis-en-scene of La Belle Époque Paris, in full symphonic Dolby sound, and after countless stage performances, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-successful Phantom of the Opera has finally come to the silver screen -- much to the sputtering disapproval of critics across the land. Swill! they cry, in rather pinched and aggrieved tones. I, however, had a rollicking good time for all of Phantom’s two-plus hours of lush pop ballads, heaving bosoms and swashbuckling swains. Let me say that if your idea of an evening is poring over Derrida (in the original French) with Phillip Glass thrumming in the background, this is not the movie for you. Absent a single whiff of irony or sociopolitical discourse, Phantom is instead an afternoon of rapturous escapism -- a Titanic for grownups, if you will.

The film is about, simply, goodness, in the idealized persona of Christine Danaae, an orphaned chorus girl whose beauty and innocence incites the best and worst in her love-struck men. In a breakout performance, Emmy Rossum (Mystic River, The Day After) illuminates a role she seems born to play. Her dignified and luminous charisma recalls Audrey Hepburn, whom she, incidentally, played in an earlier Hepburn biopic. The golden-voiced soprano sings her role and, no doubt aided by her training at the Metropolitan Opera, weaves her acting and singing into a seamless, captivating whole. At a mere 17 years of age, this prodigiously talented singer/actor creates an unforgettable heroine, tempering the baroque emotionality of the role with such intelligence and restraint that we care for her Christine even more. When she finally steps through the glass darkly to follow her seducer, we cannot help but follow her, too.

Joel Schumacher (who knew?) of action flick fame and his entire production team, especially cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator), deserve high praise and several little golden statues for the entrancing and larger-than-life look of the film. Phantom opens in grainy black-and-white on a joyless post-Great War Paris. Inside the now decrepit Opera Populaire, an auctioneer sells off the last dusty baubles of its gilded age, as the now elderly Raoul and Mme. Giry exchange sorrowful and knowing glances. Their reverie triggers the familiar thundering organ chords of the Phantom’s musical theme, and a cascade of special effects catapults us back in time to the Opera’s heyday. This filmic tour de force visual imparts a much-needed gravitas to the purple melodrama of the now familiar music.
Schumacher and Webber wrote the script in the late 1980s, adding the bookend “present day” Paris scenes and fleshing out the backstage and underground world of the Opera. The conventions of film can add depth and breadth to stage stories, and Schumacher uses all the tools in his box: grand cinematic vistas, ornate sets and special effects, as well as a symphony-sized orchestra. The added backstories and frequent use of montage and close-ups reveal an inner life of the characters to us, too, in a way impossible or superfluous on stage.

The Phantom (Gerard Butler) and Raoul (Patrick Wilson) ably carry out their musical chores, (but I never saw Michael Crawford’s version) and Minnie Driver excels as the comical diva La Carlotta. Notable also are Ciaran Hinds (the mobster in Veronica Guerin) and reliable character actor Simon Callow (always the vicar in films like Shakespeare in Love), who kick up their heels as the two unlucky impresarios who purchase the Opera just as the fates converge for its destruction.

Inspired by Gaston Leroux’s 1911 pulp horror novel, Phantom of the Opera is really a fairy tale
-- and therein lies its durability. The fear of abandonment and the transformative power of love are themes that will ever stalk the dreams of children: As rational adults, we can deny and repress, we can reduce love and sex to hygiene -- like jumping jacks -- or hawk erection-on-demand pills on TV, but we cannot completely eradicate the all too human yearning for love. In my afternoon, suburban matinee, even the irritatingly omnipresent audience chatter eventually fell silent; and, as the last flickering candle on screen faded to black and the house lights came up, the audience let out an audible gasp -- a spell had been broken. Now, that’s entertainment.

-- Patricia Ducey

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004

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