Director Joel Schumacher and writer-composer-producer Andrew Lloyd Webber may or not have done us a favor in bringing the stage hit to the screen. It all depends on whom you read, with many critics, and this especially seems to be the case with the English on-line critics who seem bent on a vendetta against Andrew Lloyd Webber, bashing both play and film as hopelessly pandering to “the masses.” In other words, the play has been too popular for some of the elite, artsy crowd— over an 100 million people have paid to see the play, which, when it was brought to New York, won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Still playing on Broadway—it’s in its 17th year—over 10 million people have packed the theater, paying some $550 million for their tickets.
Based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera’s silly plot is creaky with age, but no more so than that of most operas and operettas still revered by audiences. The film opens in black-and-white a little after WW 1 at a dilapidated opera house in Paris. The elderly Vicompte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) is interested in bidding on an antique wind-up monkey that plays the cymbals. There is another bidder also. Looking across the room, he sees Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), once the mistress of the ballet at the establishment. Then the shot of the opera house is transformed from its b-w ruined estate into its full color glory of 40 years earlier, and our story begins.
The over-worked former owner introduces to the cast of singers and dancers the pair of new owners. As he takes them around the crowded stage we soon see a major contributing factor to the departing owner’s exhaustion— Carlota (Minnie Driver), the vain star, who has to be begged to stay on under the new regime. Then she changes her mind (much to the joy of the stage hands) and walks away, leaving the shocked owners wondering whether or not they should cancel the performance. Not to fear. In the tradition of the show business genre, the understudy Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) is more than able and willing to step in and save the day. We learn that this 16 year-old singer has been mentored for years by the mysterious musical genius known only as the Phantom (Gerard Butler) and, to Christine, as “The Angel of Music.” A recluse who has shut himself off from the world because of a disfigurement covered up by a half-mask, he lives within the catacombs deep beneath the old theater. His presence keeps crew and cast in constant fear because his rage, when aroused is more devilish than angelic.
Just how great that rage can be, they soon discover. Although Christine’s debut is a huge success, Carlotta decides to resume her place at the opera. When the owners agree, the Phantom, watching from high above, gives an ominous warning against replacing Christine. The consequences are indeed murderous—and the Phantom’s rage only increases when Christine and the wealthy young patron of the opera, Raoul, fall in love. There ensues a series of calamitous events that includes murder, sword fights, a fire, and a pursuit into the watery depths of the theater.
The music is sumptuous and soaring, and probably from a high brow perspective, too sugary, but it does transport the soul. And it takes one’s mind off the ludicrous plot and questions that the “inquiring mind” might raise. Such questions that could destroy the spell of the film—such as, “How does the Phantom cover such great heights and distances so quickly?”; “”Who in the world lights all those thousands of candles in the catacombs—or, for that matter, who buys them (we see no servants)?”; and “How do those candles stay lit as they rise so impressively out of the water?” Also, in the light of so many horror films where the villain is truly gruesome, “Why is the Phantom so sensitive to a facial disfigurement that is so easily covered up?” Don’t ask. Just sit back and enjoy the music. Emmy Rossum’s sweet, lyrical voice is a joy to hear, and the lavish sets and costumes please the eye. Most of us dwellers in the hinterlands will never get to see the stage production, so Joel Schumacher’s adaptation serves us well. This is escapist cinema, not great filmic art, but so what?