April 9, 2008 -- “The Phantom of the Opera,” based on the Broadway play and book by Gaston Leroux is stunning to look at and boring to listen to, except for one song, “Music of the Night.” Like all too many stage musicals, it only has one good song, surrounded by a lot of mediocre fill-in music. If you happen to be a big fan of stage musicals, then this will probably be to your liking; if not, you've been warned. Like the original Andrew Lloyd Webber (who also co-wrote the film's screenplay) stage musical, the film's strong suit is visual in nature. Fantastic sets, costumes, great art direction and imaginative camera work make this a visually stunning film. Black and white photography is used for scenes that take place years after the original events in the early 1900s, while color is used for events that take place many years earlier. It is an effective technique both in terms of tone and as a way to convey different time periods. The basic story is pretty good, too.
Gerard Butler (“300”) plays the phantom in this version of the film, one of many. Butler does a good job with the role, both in terms of acting and singing. The leading lady is Emmy Rossum (“The Day After Tomorrow”). She plays Christine, a young singer tutored by the phantom, who lives in caverns far below the great opera house. The genesis of the phantom, a circus freak, is far less interesting than other phantoms in some previous versions of the story, and the film doesn't explain his advanced education, or how he has the money or time to buy all those candles and keep them lit, or how he gets food or clothing (he wears a snazzy suit at times). He would be noticeable in a candle shop or market. In this beauty and the beast story, the phantom has it bad for Christine, but the ugliness of his deformed face has leached into his heart, causing him to kill again and again. When Christine falls for the handsome and wealthy Vicompte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) it pushes the phantom over the edge.
The first part of the movie is all about bad opera, complete with the insufferable diva, Carlotta (Minnie Driver of “Ella Enchanted”). The supposedly good opera that follows Carlotta's departure is not much better. The owners of the opera, presented with the choice between Christine and Carlotta, inexplicably choose Carlotta, despite the fact she's impossible to deal with, doesn't sing all that well and is the object of threats from the phantom. A blackmail note from the phantom demanding money (perhaps he ran out of money for candles and pizza deliveries) seems to have arrived from another Phantom of the Opera movie altogether.
There is no real depth to any of the characters, including Christine or the Phantom. What makes them tick? The script doesn't provide much help for us to answer that question. We are supposed to feel sorry for the poor phantom, but we aren't given enough reasons to do so. Another character that might have been interesting with more screen time is the voluptuous Meg Giry (played by Jennifer Ellison). She spends considerable screen time waging a battle on the risky borderline of a push up bra and a low-cut dress. She is last seen following the underground path of the Phantom in search of "tutoring." Perhaps the phantom will get lucky after all, since the "tutoring" sessions have something to do with a large bed.
One of the better features of women is their ability to overlook the shortcomings of the men they love. That message comes through in the film as Christine shows that she isn't put off by the Phantom's deformed face. Her final choice is a bit too easy though. Let's see, should I stay with the deformed killer in the sewers, or go with the rich handsome guy? Both Butler and Rossum do their best with their roles, but it is an uphill battle. The basic story is good, but the real heroes of this movie are the great director, Joel Shumacher (“Phone Booth”), cinematographer John Mathieson (“Kingdom of Heaven”), production designer Anthony Pratt (“The Man in the Iron Mask”) art directors John Fenner (“Eyes Wide Shut”) and Paul Kirby (“The Four Feathers”), set decorator Celia Bobak (“The Magic Flute”) and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (who won an Oscar for her work in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”). They almost manage to magically turn this one-song opera into over two hours of enjoyable film. This film rates a C+.
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