Eighteen years after his London bow, “The Phantom of the Opera” lives to sing again. Sumptuous pic version, which evokes the original show while working as a movie in its own right, is lit by a radiant, vocally lustrous perf by teenaged Emmy Rossum as the Phantom’s muse and has a widescreen sweep and musical fluidity that avoids enervating, “Moulin Rouge!”-like flashiness. Given the show’s enduring fan base, international business looks to be in a major key. However, unlike “Chicago,” pic lacks the stars and Broadway pizzazz needed to attract a significant new audience, especially among young males.
Rapid worldwide rollout starts Dec. 10 in the U.K., continuing through January. Film reaches U.S. shores Dec. 22 with moderate opening and goes wide Jan. 21.
The combo of a technically experienced film director (Joel Schumacher) with little background in theater and a legit producer-composer (Andrew Lloyd Webber) with little experience in cinema works remarkably well. Both seem to have faith in the basic material and nothing to prove beyond it: The music’s the thing here and, apart from a few structural tweaks and richer settings for the action, neither director nor producer mess with success.
As the umpteenth adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s baroque novel, Lloyd Webber’s musical was notable for discarding most of its horror-movie legacy (from Lon Chaney’s classic 1925 silent to Dario Argento’s 1998 gorefest) and turning the “Beauty and the Beast” theme into an operatic meller grounded in its legit setting. (Only other pic version in such a yearningly romantic vein is Ronny Yu’s luscious Sino “The Phantom Lover,” starring the late Leslie Cheung and catchily scored by Chris Babida.)
Schumacher further softens the horror aspects, not only in the Phantom’s mask (now hardly larger than an eye-patch) and scarred face (now little more than a bad acne attack) but also in the darkness of his soul. Although thesp Gerard Butler has a considerably deeper, more resonant voice than Phantom stage originator Michael Crawford, it’s rarely matched by an appropriately stygian atmosphere. More Gotham City-like darkness would have helped punch up the screen presence of this 19th-century Gallic Batman.
Opening reels stick closely to the show as, in 1919, an auctioneer (Paul Brooke) sells off knickknacks in the crumbling, dusty auditorium of Paris’ Opera Populaire, and the aged Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson, convincingly aged), buys a music box with special memories. Thunderous organ chords then announce the overture, as yarn flashbacks to 1870, the building morphing into color and its former glory in a scalp-tingling f/x sequence.
As the company rehearses Chalumeau’s cheesy opera “Hannibal,” pic communicates a real delight in the mechanics and community of live theater, from backstage gizmos to costuming and contumely. With two experienced thesps, Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds, playing the house’s new owners, veteran Murray Melvin as the campy conductor, and a beefed-up role for the comically temperamental diva, La Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the film nourishes this extra dimension throughout, which benefits the patter songs and later ensemble numbers like “Masquerade.”
After the Phantom makes his presence felt with a falling backdrop that just misses Carlotta, the diva storms off and chorus girl Christine (Rossum) is given a shot at her part. Pic dazzlingly segues from her audition to her actual performance (“Think of Me”) while, seated in a box, young aristocratic patron Raoul recognizes her as his childhood sweetheart.
Christine tells her best friend, Meg (Jennifer Ellison), daughter of ballet mistress Mme. Giry (Miranda Richardson), that she believes she’s been visited by the Angel of Music. As first Raoul visits her in her dressing room, and then the Phantom appears and seduces her (“The Music of the Night”), the story’s various poles are set up — love vs. sexual passion, high society vs. the outsider, celebrity vs. art — in Christine’s relationships with the two men.
This first 40 minutes forms a breathless first act that adds texture and depth to the stage show in a cinematic way (such as Christine and Meg’s duet, “Angel of Music,” set in a small chapel with soft, refracted colors from a window). After settling the audience down, Schumacher and Lloyd Webber start to tweak the original, basically converting a two-act musical into a standard three-act movie.
Most notable changes are moving the crashing chandelier that famously closed Act I to the very end — more logical in movie terms — and backgrounding the main characters in brief flashbacks. Much less of an improvement is periodically returning to the “present,” in a mini-story centered on the aged Raoul. These short sequences, rendered in grainy, newsreel-like monochrome, disrupt the main story’s flow and its accumulated romantic atmosphere, especially at the end. Deleting them would trim the running time, which starts to feel a tad long around the two-hour mark.
Casting of the supports, led by a delightfully over-the-top Driver, is acute down to the smallest roles. Callow, in full theatrical-luvvy mode, seems born for his part, with the more staid Hinds just managing to keep pace with him in the patter numbers. Lower key than usual, Richardson is solid as the all-knowing Mme. Giry.
Casting of the three leads is more uneven. Aside from his rooftop duet with Rossum (“All I Ask of You”), Wilson strikes few sparks as Raoul and his flat Yank accent doesn’t chime well with the largely Brit cast. Butler, Angelina Jolie’s partner in the second “Lara Croft,” has considerably more physical presence than Wilson. But, he seems over-constrained until the final reels, when the powerfully evocative number, “The Point of No Return,” finally strides into the score.
Though her impact is slightly diluted by the two leading men’s weaknesses, Rossum, who played the murdered teen in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” still shines as Christine. American thesp, who turned 17 during filming and trained as a youngster at New York’s Met, sports a limpidly arresting voice and looks that recalls a younger version of the role’s originator, Sarah Brightman.
All of the pic’s independently raised £50 million (now $96 million) budget — WB simply took North American distribution in exchange for pic rights reverting to Lloyd Webber — is up on the screen. Anthony Pratt’s meticulously detailed sets (spread across eight sound stages at the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios) evoke real settings in a slightly heightened style, complemented by Alexandra Byrne’s costumes in pastels, blacks and whites. D.p. John Mathieson’s play with diffused light often recalls his interiors in “Gladiator,” though here his color palette is wider.
Orchestrations by the original show’s David Cullen are full-bodied without drowning the lyrics in a wall of sound; more importantly, they don’t have to fight the effects track for attention. Sole glitch on the tech side is some sloppy lip-synch in the songs, notably in the Phantom’s first number.
All players except Driver sang their own songs. In what is thought to be a first, the vocals were recorded at Pinewood as rehearsals and filming progressed (thereby incorporating improvements in performance), rather than being pre-recorded.