Worth A Look: 9.09%
Pretty Bad: 17.32%
Total Crap: 26.41%
12 reviews, 159 user ratings
|Phantom of the Opera, The (2004)
Despite my respect for my fellow HBS reviewers who have already reviewed "The Phantom of the Opera," I felt that this film needed a review from someone who actually liked the play and the music. Not to argue in favor of the movie--please, PLEASE miss it if you can--but to explain the attraction the play has, and why the film misses that so badly. There are only three things wrong with the movie. Unfortunately, they are the female lead, the male lead, and the director.The young Emmy Rossum, who plays Christine, is young, beautiful, and can sing superbly. But she can't act. One waits in vain to see an emotion cross her perfect, unblemished features. Alas, gentle reader, unblemished they remain. It may be wrong to conclude that she cannot act, but she certainly doesn't ever do so in this film. This may be attributable to the director, who was obviously telling her to stay in her key light and get the singing right. She did that, but it wasn't enough.
"Does for a romantic musical what the Japanese did to Nanking"
The story of the Phantom needs, as a wellspring to the plot, a believable Christine. Christine is a lonely, dreamy girl with great talent--who has been getting singing lessons from a disembodied voice in a chapel for several years, never finding out who she's talking to, and half suspects it's the ghost of her father! Aside from some acting talent, it takes an unusual actress to convince in this role, with a particular dreamy, otherworldly quality that Rossum just doesn't have. Think Gene Tierney in "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," or Jenny Wright in "Near Dark."
And this dreamy girl, desperate for a friend of her own, alone, no family, is perfectly attuned to that other lonely figure, the Phantom. And that brings us to the second problem with the film.
Gerard Butler, who plays the Phantom, is actually a good actor, and he does well in scenes that require him only to act. But to pull off the Phantom, you need also both a superb singer AND a particular theatricality that Butler doesn't seem to bring. His singing isn't bad, but it isn't the muscular voice the part requires (and which Michael Crawford, who played the part on stage, possesses), And the peculiar theatrical quality that the Phantom has to have is harder to define, but it is just as vital to selling the story. Think Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector with the addition of severe facial disfigurement, hiding out in the cavernous Paris Opera house, close to the music he loves.
The tragedy of the Phantom isn't, as Roger Ebert put it, "a cruelly mistreated man going mad in self-imposed exile," or of a Caliban who lusts for Miranda. The key to the Phantom is that he was an exceptional man, a prodigy, musician, singer, and composer, trapped behind that hideously deformed face. That he does go mad in that self-imposed isolation, I grant you, but the tragedy is that of wasted genius.
Despite a few mis-steps, the play told this story well. With the right actors, it was an irresistible piece of illusion and romanticism, with emotions three feet tall. But romanticism is a tiptoe walk along a knife's edge. Slip, and the passion looks silly and ridiculous. Which is what happens here. And that brings us to the man responsible for casting Rossum and Butler, Joel Schumacher. He applies to "Phantom of the Opera" the same sure touch that killed the Batman franchise.
Schumacher is willing to change aspects of the play to try to make it cinematic, but wherever he does so, it is uniformly for the worse. However, where he chooses to slavishly follow the play, he does that wrong, too.
As an example, there is a wonderful sequence on stage where the Phantom takes Christine to his lair. There was no real set, just the prop boat crossing the (implied) underground lake (there really is one in the fifth sub-basement of the Paris Opera), and the famous candelabra which rise up out of trapdoors on the stage floor. The illusion created was one of vast, dark spaces stretching out to infinity. Schumacher liked it so much, that in doing the same sequence in the film the candelabra rise up out of the lake and flare to life right beside the boat carrying Christine and the Phantom. What was evocative and moving on stage looks ridiculous and silly in the movie.
One of the joys of the stage piece was that it used a lot of illusions. Despite the big props like the chandelier, the candelabra, the elephant, and the glorious costumes, there were only minimal sets, and you realized at the end of the show that most of what you'd seen had taken place against bare backdrops. The stage director, Harold Prince, didn't try to re-create the Paris Opera House, but to imply one and get the audience's imagination to build it in their heads. It was one of the things that made the stage piece so cool. But Schumacher didn't get it, and the film is deadly unimaginative.
One of the few mis-steps of the stage piece was a totally unnecessary prologue, where Raoul (Christine's lover) visits the theater years later. Aside from establishing that Raoul survived (which doesn't matter at all), the prologue only wasted time. With his unerring touch, Schumacher not only kept this unneeded scene in, he expanded it as well.
But that made it possible for him to borrow a transition from "Titanic," as the scene changes from black-and-white in the dark, dusty, ruined theater of 1917 to the colorful splendor of its heyday, 1870, in one shot. I liked it in "Titanic," and it's a good shot. Schumacher borrowed several times from "Titanic," such as a contrast between upper-class dancing upstairs and lower-class dancing belowstairs thrown in (for no reason having to do with the story) into the number, "Masquerade." Most noticably, he managed to give "Phantom of the Opera" a distinct sense of a huge, grand undertaking sinking in a disaster of biblical proportions. But I digress.
As bad as the film is when Schumacher follows the play, when he decides to change it, it is worse.
For example, Schumacher decided for the number, "Masquerade," to dress the revellers at the party in black and white, so that the Phantom--who comes dressed as the Red Death--would make a bigger contrast. The problem is you then get singers describing themselves as wearing, "Mask of peuce, face of beast," and they're both wearing plain, black-and-white, domino masks. Since the song is people describing how they've disguised themselves, and the disguises no longer match what they're singing about, you wonder if Schumacher even bothered to read the lyrics. Or listened to them. Or cared about them.
The greatest criticism of his approach would be a picture of the Phantom's entrance from the original next to a picture of what Schumacher did with it. The original costume designer wasn't as simplistic as Schumacher; the party-goers and dancers were as colorful as an explosion at a confetti factory. The thing that made the Phantom stand out--and stand out he certainly did--was the monochromatic grimness of his costume.
Then there's the swordfight. There's a confrontation in a graveyard where Christine manages to get Raoul away from an apoplectically angry Phantom. In the movie, Schumacher decided they should have a swordfight, to get a little mindless action into the picture. And the word mindless is the key, as it was a genuinely dumb idea. At the end of the fight, Raoul beats the Phantom to the ground and has his sword at the Phantom's throat, Christine throws herself at Raoul, begging for the Phantom's life--so Raoul sheathes his sword, and lets the Phantom go! You can agree that he shouldn't kill him, but letting him go contrasts somewhat with the very next scene, where Raoul works with the managers of the opera on a plan to catch the Phantom. Dude, you should have held onto him when you had him! My first intimation that the movie was going to suck was seeing bits of the swordfight in the trailer.
But the worst change was in Schumacher's conception of the Phantom. He apparently insisted the Phantom should be young and vigorous. Indeed, from the evidence of the film, he wanted a pretty Phantom, which would seem to be a contradiction in terms. This is wrong in so many ways one doesn't know were to start.
For one thing, one of the dynamics of the relationship of Christine and the Phantom is that she is thinking of him as of a father, but his attitudes towards her are increasingly incestuous, to put it politely. For another, the mask, when it comes off, turns out not to be covering the horrendous disfigurement you imagine. Instead, he looks like his problems could be solved by two out-patient visits to a good dermatologist. Butler tries mightily, but trying to make this character work as Schumacher imagines him just isn't possible.
The empty prettiness of the Phantom is of a piece with all of Schumacher's other choices in the film, in the decor, in the costumes, in the casting--even the subterranean lair of the Phantom, for God's sake! The Phantom is a creature living in shadows, and Schumacher made this movie without any. The lair should have been swamped with shadows, with discrete pools of light around the few candles, and most of the detail unseen in the background. You can see how the set would have worked, had it been filmed correctly. It takes a scene that should have looked like a Hammer horror film, and renders it like a 1940's MGM musical.
What's maddening is that there is some fitful life in the film, in scenes away from the major characters. Minnie Driver over-acts gloriously, and in precisely the right way, as the overbearing diva, Carlotta, and Simon Callow and Ciarin Hinds are a joy as the opera's new owner/managers. It's all wasted, as the film has no life in its central story.This will be playing soon at Hell's Metroplex, on a double bill with "Batman Forever."
link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11360&reviewer=301
originally posted: 12/30/04 16:17:25