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The Phantom of the Opera movie

If you can't wow the audience with stage effects, as in the stage musical, then what do you wow the people with on film? The movie's failure to solve this critical problem is what causes it to come up short.

Changes from the stage musical

The POTO movie, like the Evita movie, is a very faithful adaptation of the musical. Changes are minor and generally understandable. In many cases they improve the flow of the story and add needed backstory or tension.

One advantage that film has over the stage is that it can, in a split second, cut away to a shot that smooths over plot holes. Case in point: after Christine's "Think of me" triumph we see Carlotta's reaction outside the opera house, which solidifies her character and the ill feelings she bears for Christine.

I liked the expanded presence of Madame Giry (even if she appropriated the "Christine Daae could sing it" lines from Meg) and the more active role for Raul. For the first time I didn't feel like Christine had made the wrong choice at the end, though that could have as much to do with the casting as with the script buffs.

I also liked that they cut out the Phantom's implied supernatural powers - for instance it's not explained in the stage musical why Carlotta starts to croak like a frog. In the movie we see the Phantom spike her water sprayer thing. Sensibly, the sitzprobe scene is cut altogether. I'm not sure there was a way to make that scene plausible without resorting to the magical.

It would have been nice to hear the full title song (they cut a verse) but that's a minor complaint. Strange though, the modern orchestrations for the title song seemed more out of place in the movie than they do on stage. Maybe because film is a more naturalistic medium and the anachronism was more jarring.

Buqet's murder worked much better than on stage. The tense underscoring during the ballet sequence helped a lot. So did shots of him trying to find the Phantom (or whoever), which helped explain why Erik would kill him. And of course, the body didn't look like an obvious dummy dropped from the rafters.

The concatenation of "Masquerade" and the second "Notes" worked. OTOH placing "Wishing you were somehow here again" before the "Twisted every way" recitative felt strange... on stage "Wishing..." grows naturally out of Christine's conflicted state as a result of everyone urging her to take part in the setup to capture the Phantom. In the movie it almost seemed like the scenes were filmed to be shown the other way around (ie, following the stage book) but then flipped for reasons of pacing.

The segue into "Don Juan" felt a bit awkward and abrupt... maybe because I was still trying to come to grips with the "Wishing..." placement.

Moving the chandalier to "Don Juan" was definitely a wise move for the movie. Dramatically it punctuated the climax and, of course, the movie doesn't have an intermission that requires the audience to go out on a high. It was pretty funny spotting all the replacements to the chandalier lyrics though, eg: "To a prosperous year/To the friends who are here."

Not a POTO expert but it seemed to me that the basis of the screenplay was the original libretto, rather than some of the (minor) revisions that have crept into the text over the years. For instance I think the movie used "our games of make believe have now begun" in "Point of No Return" instead of the more recent (?) "our passion play has now at last begun". I miss Meg's "I've watched your face in the shadows/Distant through all the applause" though given the way the scene was staged in the movie the original "Christine you must have been dreaming/Stories like this can't come true" makes sense.

Still, the movie didn't use the original Raoul/Phantom/Christine trio in the cemetary (which I believe only the London production retains... or did a few years ago when I saw it there). I guess it sucks the excitement and heroism out of the moment to have Raul come galloping in on his horse and then taking out three minutes to sing his interjections. Musically I prefer the trio but understand the choice to go with the Christine/Phantom duet.

I like the silent epilogue. It provided a tie to the opening and intermittent returns to the flash-forward scenes, and gave a clue as to the fate of the Phantom after he crawled under his chair.

The movie's end credits use the same playout music as the show, plus vocal and instrumental versions of new song "Learn to be lonely" where Minnie Driver has a chance to demonstrate she does has a nice singing voice, though not obviously not the operatic one necessary for Carlotta.

The film

I found the pacing of some songs, especially the early songs, slow. It made the film more lethargic than it should have been.

A fair number of the lyrics were spoken as dialogue. This worked - a lot of the recitative in Lloyd Webber musicals doesn't really warrant being sung anyway (cf the "would you like a coffee" bits in Aspects). Strangely the line which a lot of stage Phantoms scream to good effect, the final "Go now. Go now and leave me!" is sung in the movie.

The new "Masquerade" choreography struck me as too modern for the period... I swear there was a dancer doing some robot rap dancing for a few seconds. If I recall Gillian Lynne took care to be true to the period for her stage choreography (though that might have been true only for the ballet sequences).

The production design was based on the stage show (complete with candles rising out of the water in the Phantom's lair... I guess it would be difficult to dispense with such a defining image) and suitably sumptuous.

The cast

Emmy Rossum - whom I remember from The Day After Tomorrow - is very good. Her voice isn't quite perfect but therefore more believable as the talented but not yet fully trained ingenue. She has a beautiful face so there was really no need for Schumacher to push it as stridently as he did. Seriously, I haven't seen soggy backlighting like that since old episodes of Star Trek! Acting-wise she does a competent job, which isn't damning with faint praise as much as damning the underwritten nature of the part.

Minnie Driver leaves none of the sumptuous scenery untasted. It seemed as if a lot of Carlotta's lines not in the stage script were ad-libbed. Even if they weren't she was obviously having a ball. Though she didn't do her own singing this wasn't noticable.

Victor McGuire as Ubaldo unfortunately had no opportunity to add texture to the role, as the good stage Ubaldos do. Due to the focus on the other characters there wasn't screen time to show the substance and tenderness in the Carlotta/Ubaldo relationship for instance. Subsequently he was pretty much a non-entity in the movie.

Patrick Wilson was the best as acted Raul I've seen. (I didn't recognise him as Joe Pitt from the HBO Angels in America at all without imdb's help. A sign of his acting chops or my poor memory, or both.) For once Raoul getting the girl feels earned. This is due to the script changes as well as the casting. Raoul's earlier introduction, him jumping after the Phantom after "Masquerade", the two sword fights, the extended action sequence in the water in the "lair" climax all help define him as a more proactive, stronger, more winning character. The romance still develops far too rapidly to be convincing, but then love at first sight (or reunion) has been a staple in musical theatre since the beginning. Wilson has a good singing voice and he's not exactly ugly. Of the performers who made it into the film cast it's he who should have played the lead role. Oh, and I love how the pooncy "I must get my hat" was replaced with the more manly "I'll order my carriage".

Miranda Richardson is always good in whatever she does (she's one of today's most versatile actors), though her French accent didn't work as well as Minnie Driver's Italian one, maybe because Giry isn't the comic relief that Carlotta is. Again she's helped by the script - the early intro and silent communication with Raul in the prologue all helped define Mme Giry as a more palpable presence in the movie. Having her narrate the Phantom's new backstory helps too.

Simon Callow, Ciarán Hinds and James Fleet as the three theatre managers (past and present) were over the top, but not unforgivably so. I did like Lefevre's change of "I shall be in Frankfurt" to "I shall be in Australia".

I've always taken a keen interest in the casting of Megs in any Phantom production... and I'm glad to report that Jennifer Ellison is scrumptious in the role. She's the second cutest Meg I've seen.

Which brings us to Gerard Butler. His acting is fair enough I guess... but let's face it, none of the roles are huge acting stretches. (Strange though that none of the stage Raouls I've seen ever really got to grips with their part.) But his voice. His voice! Gerard Butler - 'e does not 'ave de voice! In the absence of stage magic (of which more below) and sheer personal presence (ie the Michael Crawford factor) the appeal of the Phantom has to be carried by the voice, not by looks. Schumacher, by casting a handsome man but mediocre singer miscalculated badly. I mean, come on. The whole point is that the Phantom is ugly. In this film he looks like he has a bad case of sunburn and acne on a miniscule portion of his face. Hardly enough to get twisted into a murderous rage over.

But back to the vocals: I applaud the principle that all the ... err... principals (Driver excepted) did their own singing. But on reflection Schumacher and Lloyd Webber really should have dubbed Butler with someone more vocally accomplished.

Someone like Anthony Warlow for instance. In fact, there was no reason Warlow - or someone like him - couldn't have been cast in the film. He always acted the part pretty well and nobody has ever sung the role better. And fifteen years after he first took on the role at 28, he's now old enough to have made a credible father figure for the teenage Emmy Rossum. And by casting Butler they weren't exactly going with a name like the much rumoured Antonio Banderas (or even Crawford) would have been. Sigh. It's wishful dreaming of course, but Phantom could have done for Warlow what X-Men did for Hugh Jackman. (Jackman actually was my own personal choice for a performer that struck a balance between acting talent, musical theatre/singing experience and name recognition.) And at the risk of being petty, they wouldn't have had to transpose songs down for Warlow.

Why the movie doesn't work as well as the musical

Phantom of the Opera is wonderful musical theatre, emphasis on the theatre. The music is over the top and romantic, the story easy to follow - if riddled with plot holes that are hastily glossed over, the characters bland and likable; but the two and a half hours pass in near-constant delight.

Why? Because the show is an intensely theatrical experience. Watching the opera house come to life in all its glory, the curtains fall away and the backdrops rise; the masked man step out of the mirror; the travelator and boat ride into the cave with the candles rising out of the mist; the star trap disappearance; the jump into the "water"; the reveal of the Phantom's scarred face; his final vanishing act; and of course the ascension and fall of the chandelier: these are all moments of pure stage magic. They derive their appeal from the fact that seeing these mechanics happening live in front of you is an exciting, even mystifying, experience.

Many of these effects were diligently transcribed to screen. But what's magical on the boards is merely ho-hum on celluloid. Just as it's difficult to recreate the visceral thril of a live vocal performance on the screen, so is it almost impossible to impress the modern CGI-jaded audience with sets, costumes, fire, smoke and mirrors.

This is something Schumacher I think was at least partially aware of. He made the right decision to reveal the tricks behind the magic within the context of the movie. Ie, we see that the Phantom disappears into a star trap after "Masquerade" - Raoul even jumps in after him - rather than trying to insult the film audience by expecting them to be impressed by what would be, for film, a trivial special effect.

The problem is, if you can't wow them with stage effects, what do you wow the people with?

The book (ie script) of the musical unfortunately isn't strong enough to be sufficiently engrossing. Neither is the music, despite featuring some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's most beloved tunes. Fact is, even when Phantom works as best as it is able (ie when the cast lives up to the direction, production values and acts and sings the heck out of the material) it still doesn't have half the power and impact of other shows in a similar vein (Les Miserables being the best example of the "popera" sub genre).

So, absent stagecraft, the film couldn't rely on the material for its power. Neither could it go down the Chicago route and adopt an distinctively idiosyncratic vision (eg reinterpreting the events through Roxie's eyes) and overtly stylised flair. Being true to the spirit of Phantom's source material does necessitate playing it "straight", a restraint Chicago wasn't bound by.

So the only real option was to trust in the power of the performances to carry the audience away. And the most important performance of course is that of the title role. Yes, Christine is a bigger and more challenging part, but getting the Phantom right is crucial. And this, unfortunately, is where the movie falls down most badly. When there's little else to wow and distract them in the show, you can't expect the audience to buy into the angel of music when his music is anything but angelic.

This is why the movie ultimately falls short. It's a shame really. So much else was done right.

Nevertheless, despite all this, the movie's final sequence - after the big (or in the movie's case little) reveal of the Phantom's hideousness, where a certain harshness in his voice is not inappropriate in the story's context - still moved me, as it almost always does on stage. It's one of the few instances where the material is sufficiently intense to carry lesser vocal performances.


PS: They stole my opening shot!!! Yes the close-up of the candle that opens the Phantom of the Opera movie could have been lifted straight off my (unauthorised of course) Les Miz screenplay. So could the concept of colour-bleached flashback (in POTO's case flash forward) scenes. Ah well.

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Comments (1)

Terri:

I thought you were completely wrong about the role of Eric being played by Gerard Butler. He was superb. The very essence of his character is the fact that he is "posing" to be "The Angel of Music," (which her father said would come to her). He is a deciever!! A Phantom, full of lies and tricks! Of course he cannot sing perfectly like a true Angel of Music should. Gerard sang exactly as he should. Ruggish!! Which made the Phantom incredibly sexy and hypnotic. Who cares that he was not ugly throughout the whole movie, if he was, do you seriously think Christine would have concidered him over Raul? I think not. However, Christine finally comes to her senses near the end of the movie and realizes what a tortured soul he is, and once again his true looks are revealed. All in all, we just have to remember that his main purpose was to decieve and keep her for his own, which I truly believe he tried to do. With excellance!! Gerard Butler was awesome!!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 6, 2005 4:10 AM.

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