For many years I've been observing the long, big success of this light opera
and the spell of magic it apparently casts over wide audiences from Broadway
to Hollywood. As an outsider, I wondered if the small mask ever came off
Michael Crawford's face and if he was the romantic opposite of the female
lead. I never ventured to attend a performance since I've never been too
keen on drama to a beat. People singing their lines works in the context of
theatrical energy and spectacle well enough to please many fans who are able
to suspend their disbelief in order to imagine reality. I'll take mine in
movies that, at least, approximates reality.
But now, it is a movie. And, finally, my questions have been answered. The
mask does come off. No, the Phantom is not the romantic lead--he's the
villain of the piece, the heart of darkness. But as an explanation of
theatrical longevity, imagination makes a return appearance.
Brilliant choreography of a talented dance company and the skilled
performances of big name actor-singers may send light opera fans home
fulfilled and humming the tunes. But it doesn't work the same way on the big
screen. For one, these elements are standards of the art, expected, and not
enough -- by themselves -- to dazzle you into a state of euphoria.
Appreciation of a piece comes, if it does at all, from story and character,
just as it does from any movie.
Which is not to say there isn't a crossover appeal. Once you get into the
musical modality from your movie theatre seat, and past the lip-synched
perfection, you can certainly appreciate the hit numbers, like "The Point of
No Return," with a new understanding. What I found not enveloping me,
however, was the magical net that accounts for the adulation.
For one thing, the mystery of the phantom's existence and intentions are more
muddled than magical. The movies' ability to suggest he can appear like a
spirit in mirrors, in minds and in the caverns of his lair brings in the
element of supernatural power. But, the story doesn't dare go too far with
that notion because the real story is down on earth, with real swords and
3-dimensional appearances. Neither director Joel Schumacher nor original
playwright-producer-composer and current co-screenwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber
are classical Homer, clashing mythological gods against mortals.
Okay, so I get it that by teaching his protegee, the lovely, fully flowered
Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum, "
The Day After Tomorrow", "The Audrey Hepburn Story")
how to sing, Phantom (Butler) may well establish himself in her mind as an
ever present influence. But this is about her art, not her heart.
And, yes, I appreciate that the power he has over her contains an appealing
mystical edge, but extending to the realities under the proscenium is
stretching the magic a bit far for film. I thought it makes you expect more
than what can be delivered and, certainly, more than has been delivered here.
But I'm willing to bet that this other dimensional texture in the story
accounts for much of its drawing power as a legendary stage presentation.
As a very deep fan of Rossum's, I can't fawn too abjectly over her pliant
delicacy as the emotional center of this highly conspicuous story. I became
enamored of her and her singing gifts in 2000's modest, underseen "Songcatcher" in which she sang
Appalachian folk with all the internal conviction of a hillbilly angel. (Talk
about mysticism). I don't imagine too many moviegoers ever saw it, nor are
they likely to recognize her from her brief role as Katie Markum, Sean Penn's
daughter who is murdered in "Mystic River." But I've had an expectant eye on her
emergence and wide recognition in a major role like this. Her virtuosic
presence as she shifts between fear and triumph is the major jewel in this
film's crown even though her co-stars' limitations hazes up its potential
Gerard Butler was fittingly forceful and selfish as the Phantom though he may
have the weakest voice; Patrick Wilson is a little on the too-fine side in
asserting himself as Vicompte Raoul de Chagny, Christine's true love
interest; Miranda Richardson remains strong and effective as Madame Giry,
stage manager and keeper of the secrets. And, while her role may irk some
for its staginess and overdone panache, I took joy in Minnie Driver's
energetic Carlotta, a Carmen Miranda-esque diva with fiery temperament aided
and abetted by a humorously caricatured Italian accent. I haven't enjoyed
Driver this much since "Good Will Hunting."
So where does that leave me? Schumaker's sumptuous framing of this classic
stage material does nothing to transform my tastes toward what I think of as
the Las Vegas dinner theatre crowd. Still, it's a "to each his own"
situation. I recognize it's a dynamite attraction for all those who made it
endure so long and can hardly see how devotees would ignore it, costume
fluffery, rephrasing and all. For the Rossum experience alone, though, I
~~ Jules Brenner