The Phantom of the Opera

on December 22, 2004 by Wade Major
After numerous failed attempts to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" to the bigscreen under the eye of a major director like Steven Spielberg and Shekhar Kapur, the legendary stage musical finally arrives with no less than "Tigerland" and "Phone Booth" helmer Joel Schumacher calling the shots. Oft-reviled, rather unfairly, as the director who derailed the "Batman" franchise, Schumacher is, nonetheless, one of the most capable and efficient filmmakers in Hollywood, boasting a filmography far more diverse and risky than that of anyone with an Oscar on their shelf. And with "Phantom," he fires another solid shot across his detractors' bow, mounting a stylish, emotionally rich and supremely satisfying adaptation of Webber's musical that successfully transitions it to film while also deepening its dramatic core.

Based on the same 1911 Gaston Leroux novel that has already inspired at least a half-dozen films beginning with the famed 1925 silent, "The Phantom of the Opera" tells the story of a mysterious, disfigured musical genius and possible madman (Gerard Butler) who controls, through terror both psychological and real, the operation of Paris' Opera Populaire. After his latest antics send the Opera's incorrigibly temperamental diva (Minnie Driver) storming off, the new owners (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) fear the worst. But the Phantom has other plans in store, manipulating circumstance to have a chorus girl named Christine (Emmy Rossum) given the lead. Needless to say, Christine is a hit and a star is born. But the Phantom's ability to manipulate and orchestrate ends with matters of the heart -- for try as he might, he is unable to quell Christine's feelings for her childhood sweetheart, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), now the wealthy Vicompte de Chagny--who just happens to be the Opera's new patron.

The Phantom of the Opera This captivatingly tragic triangle, the twists and turns it engenders and the assorted supporting figures who orbit it on the periphery are the heart of the tale and a key reason why it has, in its various forms, continued to fascinate and captivate readers and audiences for nearly a century. Indeed, beyond the elaborate set design and swooningly romantic music of Lloyd Webber's stage production was the unavoidable appeal of Leroux's original tale. No surprise, then, that Schumacher, working from a script co-written with Webber, should seek to bring added dramatic fortitude to the film by improving the audience's access to these original character relationships. Much more is made of the Phantom's love for Christine, for example, along with substantial added backstory on both Christine and the Phantom.

On one level, the casting of Rossum, Butler and Wilson seems to be a no-brainer -- all three are blessed with beauty and spectacular voices, particularly the angelic Rossum, who literally seems to have been born for the part. But beyond the cosmetic, they are also gifted actors able to effortlessly draw viewers into an emotional firestorm that is truly operatic in nature.

To Schumacher's and Webber's credit, the film really does go above and beyond what was required -- name recognition alone would have been enough to guarantee a marginally competent production some kind of success. Great screen adaptations of stage musicals, however, are never just filmed stage productions -- they are, without fail, re-imaginings that bring a cinematic dimension to a theatrical skeleton, building a new musical life form which, in most instances, has stood the test of time better than the source material. Whether or not the same will hold true here remains to be seen -- it certainly has the production value and vision to accomplish the task. Indeed, some may even say it's too much of a throwback to fit into the new, post-"Chicago" musical paradigm.

Then again, the critics weren't kind to the stage production, either. Starring Emmy Rossum, Gerard Butler, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Joel Schumacher. Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber. A Warner Bros. release. Musical/Drama. Rated PG-13 for brief violent images. Running time: 143 min

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