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Film Review: The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

After fifteen years of false starts and frustration, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of The Phantom of the Opera has finally made it to the silver screen. Unfortunately, with a cast of unknowns and a director not known for his subtle sophistication, the film seemed potentially poised to be a colossal disaster in the great tradition of overblown Hollywood trash. That turns out not to be the case, which sounds like a good thing but really isn’t. This film version of The Phantom of the Opera is not terrible, but it might have been more fun it if were truly bad. Instead, it’s ponderous and slow, overdone and uninvolving, leaving you puzzled over how the stage show could have become a worldwide sensation.

Some of the problems stem from the Broadway musical, which has never been a critical favorite despite its worldwide blockbuster success. The score is overblown, with only a few good show-stopping tunes (e.g., “Music of the Night.”), and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the music plays almost continuously (there are only a few brief passages of spoken dialogue).

To be fair, Andrew Lloyd Webber makes a valiant effort to live up to the setting of his story, which is—after all—an opera house. Instead of just writing a bunch of pop songs, he adopts the classic approach of dividing the music into dramatic underscoring, expository recitatives (sung dialogue that advances the story), and delicate arias (songs that stop the story to allow characters to voice their inner thoughts and emotions). As ambitious and impressive as this approach is, however, it is not always successful; the recitative sections are not great dramatically, nor musically, and there is a somewhat monotonous quality to the background music.

Most often, the score comes to life when Webber falls back on his past experience, which began with rock operas like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. This is most obvious during the title song, which features an energetic descending chromatic riff played dramatically on a church organ, while a rock-and-roll-type rhythm plays underneath. With this catchy song, the rather drowsy score suddenly kicks into high gear, but the modern sound is at odds with the operatic tone of the rest of the music. Also, the synthesized bass line and repetitive drumbeat makes even this contemporary music sound dated—like a “Hooked on Classics” disco rendition from decades ago.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004) Review: Young Faces Lip Synching

These musical weaknesses are not aided by the casting of unknown actors in the lead roles. Mostly, the cast hit the right notes, but there are times when even a modestly attuned ear can tell that the orchestra and the sound mix are being used to add some pizzazz to competent but not overwhelming performances. Also, there is a problem with articulation: even when the notes are right, it’s often difficult to understand each singer’s rendition of the lyrics.

The young faces of the leads makes the movie look like an extremely elaborate  high school production. This is less of a problem with Christine, who is supposed to be young and innocent, but it works against the tortured Phantom (Gerard Butler) and leaves leading man Raoul (Patrick Wilson) looking like not much more than a one-dimensional hero: good-looking, rich, and brave, but without much personality.

Jarringly, the cast often does not look as if they are really singing their big numbers. Except in the case of Butler (who is most often hidden behind a mask), there seems to be a disconnect between the songs and the facial expressions of the singers: no matter how emotional the music is supposed to be, the actors glide through the motions, seldom emoting appropriately. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Emmy Rossum. Her beauty lights up the screen, but the film refuses to let her give anything resembling a moving performance. All she is asked to do is pose prettily for the camera and move her lips in sync with the lyrics while the score tries to fill in the blanks.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004) Review: Camera Work Fizzles

Part of the problem here rests with director Joel Schumacher (who co-wrote the screenplay with Webber). Schumacher frequently seems at a loss regarding what to do with his actors when the score demands that they sing to each other for three or four minutes at a time. Much of the action during these musical numbers consists of actors standing still or aimlessly wandering around each other on the stage.

While the choreography seldom dazzles, the fancy camerawork mostly fizzles. Despite the budget, much of the film feels cramped and claustrophobic, as if the show’s roots as a Broadway stage musical had anchored the movie down. Schumacher tries to compensate, but only draws further attention to the problem. Lots of low camera angles looking up into the rafters and high-angles looking down from the rafters are supposed to cover this up, but they just remind us of how static the action really is. The big attempt to get the film out of the catacombs and into the open air—a sword fight between Raoul and the Phantom in a cemetery—is completely undermined by hand-held camerawork and jumpy editing that completely obscure the actual action (presumably because it was not staged well enough to survive close scrutiny).

Elsewhere, Schumacher displays a penchant for the worst excess of the late Cecil B. DeMille, filling the frame with elaborate costumes and dance sequences that are gaudy, overblown, and meaningless. Most obviously, during the story’s “Don Juan Triumphant” sequence (a staging of the opera written by the Phantom as a starring vehicle for Christine) the otherwise seductive sequence is marred by a band of black-clad background dancers who look as if they belong not in a 19th century opera house but a 21st century West Hollywood cabaret.

Absurdly, when the Phantom abducts Christine to his lair, she is wearing an outrageous white corset with what looks like a tiny g-string beneath the lacy frill billowing around her hips. It’s an absolutely gorgeous get-up, but you’re left wondering whether Victoria’s Secret was supplying costumes to the Paris Opera House back in the 1870s. And even if we accept the existence of the costume, what is it doing on this particular character: the innocent, virginal Christine? (This is not an isolated instance. Later, Christine visits her father’s grave. She shows respect for the dead by wearing black, but the cut of the garment is low enough to reveal plenty of cleavage—a point made all the more amusing by the falling snow. Why expose so much flesh in a cold cemetery?)

This nonsensical costuming at least has the virtue of being beautiful. Elsewhere, the film is littered with other absurdities that have no redeeming value at all. The plot is full of holes. For example, in an unintentionally funny juxtaposition of scenes, Raoul bests the Phantom in a sword fight and then simply turns his back and rides away with Christine. Immediately afterward, we see Raoul back at the opera house, announcing a plan to spring a trap and catch the Phantom – in the process, putting Christine’s life in peril. Why resort to this elaborate, dangerous plan when he had the Phantom in his power only a moment before—and let him go?

The Phantom of the Opera (2004) Review: Too Timid to Scare

Overall, the story evinces a rambling quality, with too many black-and-white framing scenes (showing two of the characters decades later) that add little to the story; the only necessary ones were at the beginning and at the end, just enough to set the stage at the beginning and close the curtain at the end. There is also some awkward exposition intended to fill in blanks left by the stage show (there’s even a flashback of the Phantom living an Elephant Man-like existence as a sideshow freak before escaping into the tunnels beneath the opera house).

The film comes to life in at least a few places, partly because the original source material (Gaston Leroux’s novel) is filled with the kind of melodrama and memorable set pieces that survive almost any translation to the screen. Unfortunately, these isolated moments never add up to much, and the film fails to sweep up viewers in the joys of a good, old-fashioned love-story-thriller.

Butler’s Phantom with a mild skin condition

Worse, the film refuses to deliver as a horror movie; like Universal Pictures’ 1943 Technicolor version with Claude Rains, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is a glossy musical first and foremost, and it opts for the romantic treatment of classic monsters we’ve been suffering through since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Scares are few and far between, with spectacle trying to fill the void. The famous falling chandelier sequence is a standout, but the equally important unmasking scene is a dud, thanks to unimpressive makeup that hardly makes Gerard Butler look like the sad, deformed basket case he is supposed to be.

This Phantom shows no signs of deformity behind his mask. He looks like a handsome hunk with perfectly coiffed hair—until his mask is taken away. Then the black hair miraculously loses its perfect sheen—maybe to help distract us from the fact that the Phantom’s facial deformity looks like little more than a mildly unfortunate skin condition.

If the Phantom’s unmasking were nothing but a gratuitous set-piece, the weak makeup might not harm the film. However, the entire story depends on his deformity: it’s what drove him underground, drove him to despair and homicidal rage against the outside world, until love (in the form of Christine) offered him a hope of salvation. As much as it is a horror story, The Phantom of the Opera is also a tragic, Beauty-and-the-Beast love story of (pun intended) operatic proportions. Perhaps the film’s biggest failing is that it seldom achieves this dimension in a full-blooded, heart-rending manner. (A final fade out of a black rose lying on a grave is a touching, haunting hint of what might have been.) If you want to cry your eyes out over a larger-than-life love story, see HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS instead.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004) Rating

Bottom Line

A weak translation of the popular musical.

Directed by Joel Schumacher. Screenplay by Andrew Lloyd Webber & Joel Schumacher, from Webber’s Broadway musical, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Starring: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Simon Callow.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.