Ostentatious and cumbersome, Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pop opera maintains the essential vulgarities. That said, the film’s elaborate framing device—as two of the tragedy’s participants spot one another at an auction at Paris’ long-abandoned, fire-ravaged, Opéra Populaire—creates transitions that are even more distracting than the machinations of theatrical acts.
Still, there’s no denying this show works inexplicable magic. Teetering on the edge of abstraction—with its titular anti-hero embodying “music”—The Phantom of the Opera has stood a considerable test of time and is much admired by battalions of fans. And so the film undertakes to repeat the play, without much change and with great care to preserve its most well-known aspects. Among these, count the artfully partial face-mask that rather allows the Phantom (Gerard Butler) to seem conventionally “handsome” despite his scarred countenance, and the big fat numbers by which performers express “emotion” with gargantuan excess. As well, the film’s “opening up” is limited, as the camera mostly follows characters around the opera house, with little attention to (fictional) urban context, population, or history.
The storyline, as many already know, has to do with as pretty girl’s conflicting ambitions. Sort of. Aspiring star and current chorus singer Christine (Emmy Rossum) first appears looking lovely and untainted, in the background of a rehearsal in progress, her pale gamine’s face set off by long dark curls and perfect spotlights. Before her stands Carlotta (screechy Minnie Driver), over-costumed, pampered, horribly obnoxious, the resident diva Christine is destined to replace. Apparently Carlotta is a terrible singer, but sells tickets, so the opera house owners, Firmin (Ciarán Hinds) and Andre (Simon Callow), are perennially afraid to upset or fire her. You might read this as a not-so-subtle indictment of the bourgie masses who consume popular culture: their taste sucks. And you might also, presumably, situate yourself in this broad assessment.
Christine’s career issues are wrapped up in personal travails of course, as she is a young beauty adored by two men. The first is that wholly bland Phantom, who promises her “the music of the night.” And oh by the way, he’s apparently been her vocal coach since her father died when she was a child. He, in turn, is a very grumpy gus, having lived his miserable life in the opera house basement, flooded such that his lair—all candles and mirrors and extra capes—is approachable only by boat. While he likes to pretend he’s all self-made and brilliant, his backstory suggests otherwise, and provides the film’s interesting few minutes, rendered in a deft flashback for his caretaker Madame Giry (ridiculously accented Miranda Richardson): she discovered him in a cage, abused as a circus freak until he killed his master, then hid him away under the opera, ostensibly to save him from the world’s cruelties.
That this treatment comprises its own cruelty doesn’t merit attention here: he’s a damaged soul in multiple ways, and poor, put upon Madame Giry meant well, I guess. She’s also invested in Christine’s career moves, and maybe her daughter Meg’s (Jennifer Ellison)—though the latter is mostly relegated to comforting Christine during crises of the heart, and by the end, donning trousers and marching alongside the men in an effort to save her friend from the by then totally insane Phantom.
While it might seem that Christine’s dreams are pretty much set by the Phantom and Madame Giry’s efforts to secure them, she runs into a snag in plans when she falls in love with the opera house’s new owner (who also happens to be her childhood sweetheart), Raoul (Patrick Wilson), now a Vicompte. Bland and blondish, Raoul doesn’t even have the wherewithal to recognize Christine at first, but once he hears her dulcet soprano voice (and watches her effect on listeners, including paying customers), he’s got to have her.
And so begins the contest between darkness and light: the Phantom takes Christine for an excursion beneath the opera house, wowing her with mist, orchestral flourishes, and dark shadows galore. He wants to possess her completely, for her to disavow all other emotional ties, to be his and his alone (“Let your darkest side give in / To the power of / The music that I write”). Raoul, for his part, takes her up to the opera house’s rooftop, where her lovely alabaster-toned shoulders are exposed to snow as he proclaims his lasting love for her. Oddly, Raoul also understands his affection in terms of ownership, by way of protection (“Let me be your shelter, / let me be your light / And to guide you”). The girl’s options are, to say the least, limited.
Such restrictions are gracelessly represented in the show’s most operatic gimmick, that is, the characters’ singing of everything, from their grandest sentiments to the bit of the least interesting plot information. At times this apparatus can be downright comical, as when Raoul and the former owners connive to trap the Phantom (using Christine as bait, by the way), talk-singing their way though mundane exposition. At other times, it can be overwhelming, as the opera becomes a series of exclamations: duets! declarations! desperations! At long last, the Phantom tires of the patter and brings disaster on all around him, in the form of the famous chandelier splat. If only he’d thought of this solution sooner.