Phantom’s spirit and my voice (in one combined)

Thursday, 23 December 2004 — 9:44pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

I have seen both The Return of the King, Extended Edition, and The Phantom of the Opera. I’m going to analyse the second one first, because there is perhaps more to talk about – and that’s saying a lot. Mostly it comes of how the 250-minute cut of what was already a heavenly extravaganza solves pretty much every single niggling issue of initial adaptation-induced apprehension I had with the original cut. I quote from what I wrote a year ago:

ROTK may be the most successful of the three instalments in terms of not feeling harmed by its time constraints; but as with the first two, it has clearly set itself up to be a case where the DVD edition can and will eclipse the present cut for good. There are too many things that everybody knows were shot but mysteriously absent – the Mouth of Sauron, Merry being made Théoden’s squire, and at least one Gandalf-Nazgul confrontation – that ensure this will not end up being the preferred edition.

And it’s all there. Gandalf and the Witch-King face off, and it’s perfect. Merry is anointed as Théoden’s squire, and it’s perfect. The Houses of Healing make a brief appearance, and it’s perfect. The Corsairs of Umbar, the march across Mordor, Saruman and Grima’s fates (the omission of the Scouring aside, but to that I am already accustomed) – perfect. The Mouth of Sauron is damn well more than perfect. Like the other two Extended Editions, I am utterly baffled that I was ever okay with how some of these scenes were left out in spite of being filmed, and that Jackson still finds the theatrical editions to be more definitive. They’re not.

I am convinced Peter Jackson is Santa Claus. For three consecutive years, he has given me and countless others the Bestest Christmas Present Ever (or at least, for that particular holiday season). The Extended Edition could marginally qualify as a fourth. As further proof of the Kiwi director’s true identity, I offer the Elves.

But this year, my Christmas wish was for something that Jackson was not in a position to give. This year, the role of Cinematic Santa was entrusted to someone entirely less reliable, whose vision of one Harvey Dent played by Tommy Lee Jones was hardly up to par as far as legendary bearers of half-scarred faces are concerned.

Now, I think I’ve been a good boy all year, and all I asked for was this:

Joel Schumacher: please, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t screw up The Phantom of the Opera.

This is one of those Christmas moments where I got my wish fulfilled in such a way that I wonder if maybe I should have asked for more.

So to answer the implicit question – no, Joel Schumacher did not screw up The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, it is his best film. (Take that with a grain of salt, as I have heard him acclaimed for Tigerland, which I have not seen.) This is clearly leagues above anything else I have ever seen him do, and as expected. much of it is on the strength of the source material – but that is not to discredit what he contributed.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flagship musical should stop reading here and go see it. I deliberately leave “it” ambiguous as to whether I refer to the stage production or the film, but know that the latter more than suffices as an endearing introduction to the material, and I think it will last, though you might not come out of it with an understanding of why some people are just so darned crazy about it. But you’ll love the songs.

Before you go, however, I would like to offer this piece of advice: do not expect Moulin Rouge! or Chicago. Phantom is a completely different animal, and the first of its kind to make its way to the silver screen in what history will remember and already remembers as the movie musical revival of the early 2000s. It is not a fun movie. You will not be observing the whirling dervish of “Sparkling Diamonds” or the finger-snapping, toe-tapping vaudeville joy of “Roxie.” Phantom has a closer attachment to reality, and its visual stylings are conventional. It’s supposed to be like that.

That’s the difficulty of figuring out this movie: it feels so traditional, like it treads on a well-worn path, but there’s something almost indescribable that makes it distinct. It’s tempting to say that it hearkens back to the Oscar-winning wide-shot period epics of the sixties, but it is entirely more serious, and in a way, more subdued in the isolation of its setting. Here, there is no Grand Tour of Salzburg (The Sound of Music), New York (West Side Story), London (My Fair Lady), London (Oliver!) or London (Mary Poppins). There is no orchestrally-backed Overture and Entr’acte – something I attribute to the impatience of modern audiences, but that’s a different can of worms entirely. Phantom takes place almost entirely in an opera house, and this actually precludes it from qualifying as a Big Movie, spectacular-spectacular to use the old vernacular. It’s perhaps aesthetically closest to Beauty and the Beast, except in live-action and without Gaston gulping down a dozen eggs at a time.

The comparisons just aren’t going to suffice, so let’s get into specifics.

I went into The Phantom of the Opera with an apprehension that seemed familiar, the origin of which was difficult to trace. Ten minutes in, I figured out where I had last experienced it: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s an easy feeling to describe once you have identified it. The sets are great, but you would venture that they look a lot better in person on the soundstage. The pace is perhaps a bit rushed, and it’s like the movie is fighting to get to the parts everyone wants to see. The director doesn’t move the camera entirely enough, the lighting is rather static in such a way that the photography lacks a distinct voice of its own, and you wonder if maybe this project should have gone to someone with true cinematic acumen like Santa Claus – er, Peter Jackson.

(In all seriousness, this would have been an amazing Peter Jackson film. Maybe I’m still riding the post-Extended Edition high, but it’s fun to match great directors to musicals that suit their style perfectly, and I think this is a match – albeit one that will never happen.)

The first screening never truly suffices when a film is based on a source that is near and dear to your heart, or has played an instrumental role in defining who you are as a person and what you look for in art. You see it the first time to get used to the methods and madness of the retelling, and unless there are major complaints that you absolutely cannot work around, you see it a second time to get past that baggage as best as you can and evaluate its lasting power as a self-contained entity. To that effect, I think I am beginning to develop a vocabulary of the common sensations that may or may not appear in films of this sort. Here follows a glossary of a few that apply.

Diagon Alley: The moment when a shaky adaptation finally eases you in and makes you think, hey, I think I’m really beginning to like this.

Quidditch: The would-be showstopper that everyone wanted to see, but was not in any way close to being the high point of the film.

The Mirror of Erised: The scene that is definitive enough a representation that it secures the film’s place as the definitive treatment of the source, unlikely to see a remake in a very long time, if ever.

Balrog Moment: The scene that was perfect, exactly as you imagined, and made you sit up in your chair and squeal with glee as you mouth those too-familiar words in sync with the actors on screen.

Hobbit Reduction Algorithm: When a translation to screen creates a perspectival drift that moves the centre of narrative gravity away from the characters in which it lay in the source material; this can be for both good or ill.

You will notice that these are all from The Philosopher’s Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring, but this is for the sake of clarity more than anything else. There are reams of other terms you can graft from the likes of Troy, and historical adaptations can provide a lexicon of their own.

With that brief preamble out of the way, let’s talk Phantom.

It opens in the same way Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ends, but going in the opposite direction – breathing life and motion into a grainy monochrome photograph that defines the aesthetic for all of the twentieth-century scenes. Yes, I said scenes – the 1919 auction is not alone in its depiction of the reminisces of the aging Raoul, though appropriately, it is the only part that features any dialogue. This sets the stage for the transition back to the timeframe of the main story with all the requisite elements – Lot 666, the chandelier coming back to life, and a very nice touch where the opera house floods with colour and the netting of spider’s silk melts away from the seats. On the whole, the transitions from 1919 to 1870 work a lot better than the other way around; fundamentally, they are not something that should be unfamiliar to anybody who remembers Titanic, but they serve their purpose on their own terms.

Through both the auction segment and our introduction to the various characters in the performance of Hannibal, everything was still a bit rushed and unsettled. When Carlotta (Minnie Driver) starts prancing about and being generally ridiculous, Driver plays her as such a caricature that one is unsure of whether it is intentional and praiseworthy or if it is too much. Later in “Notes” and “Prima Donna” the film provides the audience a better sense of where it wants to take Carlotta, but there is some initial discomfort.

Phantom finally shows off its first shining moment when Christine sings “Think Of Me,” and you realize that there is absolutely nothing to worry about on the casting front here. Emmy Rossum owns the role – she has the voice, the looks, the age, the demeanour, the talent. It’s a joy to see her break into song. This is less of a Diagon Alley than the satisfactory clearing of a hurdle that one is right to be concerned about upon entering the cinema, but take it and like it, because there is a lot to like.

“Angel of Music” draws no complaints, and makes for as good an expository device as it does onstage, if not better on account of the movie’s freedom of movement between sets. It possesses a lovely melody to begin with, and when the lights go out in the opera house as we approach the Phantom’s revelation in the mirror, we begin to get a sense of what a lavish and delicate production this is when it tries to be.

Then we get to the title song, “The Phantom of the Opera,” as the Phantom leads Christine into the catacombs. This is, in a word, Quidditch. In fact, the sequence retains something that the film should have dispensed with, which is the original orchestration. In my mind, it should have kept the organ, but none of that percussive eighties texture with a hint of electric guitar. Film gives you the ability to use a much better orchestra than the one you can typically afford to deploy in the pit, and it is puzzling that Phantom takes advantage of it almost everywhere but here. Some of Christine’s lines are also done in voiceover, almost with the air of internal monologue, and it lacks that visual drawing power of the lips that most take for granted until it is gone.

In the Phantom’s lair comes his signature solo, “Music of the Night” – and it is safe to say that depending on how discerning a listener you are, this is the make-it-or-break-it moment insofar as Gerard Butler is concerned – that is, if you have already gotten over just how young he is. His voice is haunting enough to set up the Phantom as a character, providing him with the emotive capability that he cannot express facially because half of his visage is concealed under the mask – but haunting does not equal powerful, and it is easy to wish the Phantom had a bit more stage presence.

For “Music of the Night,” though, Butler does his job. The real concern in this scene is a cinematographic one. The lair is lit by hundreds of candles, but even so, it had no business being that bright. This scene needed some shadow. In fact, it begged for it. It looks like the Hogwarts Great Hall, and it needed to feel much, much darker. The brightness does not stop the scene from being magical, though, and when Christine faints in the Phantom’s arms, the softness pays its dues.

And then we come to “Notes.” This is Diagon Alley, the turning point where Phantom gets so good that it drains away that tendency to criticize everything about it, no matter how good a time you are actually having. “Notes” is superb, and André and Firmin (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds, respectively) are an electric pair here and for the rest of their numbers in the movie.

At this point I want to skip ahead and identify what I think is as much of a Balrog Moment as a member of the audience, Lloyd Webber buff or otherwise, is going to find in this movie. There’s snow on the rooftop when Raoul and Christine make their way there, and it sets the stage for the glorious perfection that is “All I Ask Of You.” The full orchestra swells, just as I asked. The song is as beautiful as it always was, one of the most memorable duets to see the light of Broadway. But it’s the ambience of the mise en scène that takes a great song and weaves it into a truly beautiful scene. The number is simple, but lovely, and is probably the most outwardly romantic scene in any movie this year, with the possible and highly arguable exception of Peter Parker and Mary-Jane with their backs to the web near the end of Spider-Man 2.

“All I Ask Of You” captures exactly what it is that makes the best movie musicals shine: not only does the film capture the spirit of its source material, it adds to it and makes it better by taking advantage of a certain cinematic freedom, and sets the song to pretty pictures. Here, the film cries out with a voice of its own beyond what Lloyd Webber so generously provided, a voice that had up to that point been largely kept to a whisper.

You will notice that there is no mention of a chandelier so far. It falls, but not when you expect; this is actually not a reprehensible plot change at all, given that the lack of an intermission would have dulled the effect of a midpoint chandelier disaster anyhow. The repercussions are hardly noticeable.

“Masquerade” is as grand an ensemble offering as it needs to be, but it also shows a lot of restraint. More than anything, it demonstrates that Phantom is a song musical, not a song-and-dance musical. There is no showstopping choreography, but whether or not it would fit in the first place is a different matter. Upon the Phantom’s disappearance in a burst of flame like a certain Wicked Witch of the West we know, there is the interesting filmic addition of Raoul attempting to follow him, but winding up in a hall of mirrors that brings Enter the Dragon to mind. Yes, I kid you not – The Phantom of the Opera has a visual reference to Bruce Lee. But when you consider the mirror motif in the play, which translates exceptionally well to the film version, it makes a lot of sense.

Weirdness abounds when we get to Madame Giry’s retelling of her first childhood encounter with the Phantom, a story she recounts to Raoul. It is not one of the better scenes in the movie. While the visual rendition of the backstory is a serviceable substitute for generating sympathy for the Phantom’s condition – as opposed to it emanating wholly from his presence onscreen – it is not an example of the wonderment that occurs when movies augment what is provided by their sources. This is a very different kind of augmentation than the atmospheric direction of “All I Ask Of You,” – a less effective kind.

I am a completely satisfied customer with the entire sequence at the cemetery, for much of the same reasons as I was with “All I Ask Of You” – again, there’s snow, pretty colours, Emmy Rossum’s sonorous voice, and some images worth framing, or at least adopting as your computer desktop wallpaper. This is the “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” like how the mixed bag that was The Philosopher’s Stone delighted us with the Mirror of Erised. A beautiful song, a beautiful scene – but with two adaptation issues to note. The first is that the Phantom does not shoot fire. Instead, he engages Raoul in a duel – good fencing in a movie where you don’t expect to see good fencing, though the way it ends is maybe a tad sloppy.

The second is that when Raoul rides into the cemetary, and the Phantom’s voice is speaking to Christine, he warns her, “That is not the ghost of your father!” The problem is, in the context of the film, none of us thought it was – and that makes it a curious line, as it is the only trace that remains of a slightly more explicit motif in the play, something that had to be eliminated by necessity here because the Phantom is so much younger.

And so we come to Don Juan Triumphant and “The Point of No Return.” Here the major difference between stage and film comes out. On stage, what part of the action you see is up to you and your decision of what to focus your eyes upon. On film, the editing room is in control, and seeing the reaction shots adds a lot of tension. Now, Piangi and the Phantom look so different in this scene that there is absolutely no believable way anybody could confuse the two, but the film works around this in an interesting way. The implication seems to be that gradually, everybody – André, Firmin, Raoul, the police – realize that things are getting wrong and wronger, but they sit in their boxes utterly powerless to do anything about it. Christine is the only one who can, and when she pulls off the mask, you get the tension-and-release dynamic of a well-staged sequence.

As Phantom nears its conclusion and the title character takes Christine into the catacombs one last time, there is the obviation that Gerard Butler’s best scenes are with the mask off. The scarring is subdued – again, the Phantom is no Harvey Dent, and rightly so – but enough that it amplifies Butler’s range of expression and finally encourages some audience sympathy for the broken man he portrays. After spending most of the movie relegated to a minimal role by a Hobbit Reduction Algorithm of sorts, the Phantom finally takes centre stage.

It all comes together very well, though as in “Music of the Night,” the Phantom’s lair is very brightly lit. In the play, it is just as full of candles, but the thing about a stage performance is that everything around the stage is shrouded in darkness, and it produces a certain level of intimacy that is not missing here, but certainly subdued.

One expects the credits to roll after the score hits its final cadence, the Phantom exits and everything fades to black – so it’s a shock when we are suddenly thrust back into 1919, with the old Raoul visiting Christine’s grave. It is at first a questionable decision, but is actually a very nice bookend of a touch when you see what Raoul finds there.

So, with that out of the way, let us formulate a holistic impression.

The cast ranges from arguably good (Butler as the Phantom, Carlotta) to perfect (Emmy Rossum as Christine, André and Firmin). Patrick Wilson as Raoul is a mixed bag – he’s great when he sings or plays off his chemistry with Rossum, but when he speaks, he is less effective. But whether or not a Phantom fan will like this adaptation really depends on his or her comfort with Gerard Butler, be it his youth, the timidity of his voice next to Michael Crawford’s more thunderous moments or how little screentime he has.

Phantom is different from most other musical adaptations in that it is told almost entirely in song. Whereas screenwriters such as Ernest Lehman once added clever and quotable lines aplenty that fleshed out the exposition, and the Fosse duo of Cabaret and Chicago were not all-out musicals so much as they were regular films with the occasional stage act, Phantom has little to no spoken dialogue. Aside from the chandelier and some cosmetic things like the lack of pyrotechnics at the graveyard, the film version hardly ever diverges from its source – but at the same time, it adds very little. Whenever it dares to infuse a scene with a personal touch, as it does in “All I Ask of You” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” it amazes. “Notes” draws part of its elegance from Schumacher’s willingness to spread out his cast across his lavish sets, move them around, and move the camera with them.

The end result is that the film omits almost nothing, but adds very little – and that is perhaps its greatest source of disappointment. This is a very good movie, and one that I could see myself treasuring for some time to come – though further viewings will test that theory. But most of what is so good about it rides on the coattails of what Andrew Lloyd Webber already created. That is fine in the sense that I would imagine that Lloyd Webber is very satisfied with the end result, and most of the Fan Base of the Opera will be as well, depending on how militant they are about Butler not having Michael Crawford’s voice. It is really too bad that Schumacher offers such a faithful rendition already, but like Chris Columbus in The Philosopher’s Stone, sticks to the source in such a way that he does not dare offer anything for film buffs who find joy in movie magic beyond what the medium of origin has to offer – and this time, Alfonso Cuaron isn’t going to hop in and do it right two films later.

I am disappointed that The Phantom of the Opera, a great film with melodies you want to sing along with once you have the privacy of a home theatre and the DVD, is not one of the all-time classics in the pantheon of legendary movies. I am disappointed that it doesn’t gut you and rip out your still-beating heart like West Side Story. I am disappointed that it doesn’t stand a chance in holy hell of being a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon to rival the stage production.

But that’s the spoiled brat talking, who leaves no cookies by the fire and still expects Peter Jackson to send a masterpiece down the chimney. In the end, I got my wish. Joel Schumacher did not screw up; far from it, his film of The Phantom of the Opera is a keeper. Do yourself a favour and see it.


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2 rejoinders to “Phantom’s spirit and my voice (in one combined)”

  1. i love classic operatic arias and Phantom Of The Opera is one of the best musical “-*

    Wednesday, 17 November 2010 at 6:08pm

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