The Phantom of the Opera

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I imagine that the vast majority of the audience for the new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera has never seen the Broadway musical. That makes it extremely difficult for me to speak to whether or not this is a good film for them. I've listened to the soundtrack album more times than I can count, and have seen the show twice-- most recently just after Thanksgiving on Broadway. So the stage version was fresh in my mind when I entered the movie theater last night, and the film version is remarkably faithful. There are some changes, of course-- the framing sequence from the show's opening is extended and revisited; the destruction of the chandelier, the climax of Act I on stage, is delayed until the final act; rehearsals for Don Juan have been cut-- but the essence of the film remains true to its source material. In fact, the film improves upon the original in a number of significant ways. The pace of many musical numbers is reduced sufficiently to make virtually all the lyrics comprehensible, for one thing. For another, story details have been added to help make sense of things for viewers who haven't read the original Gaston Leroux novel (how exactly does the ballet instructor know so much about the Phantom, and why didn't she intervene sooner; why is Christine so susceptible to the Phantom's charm; when and how did Christine and Raoul know each other). The result is that the story hangs together much more tightly on film than on stage.

The film's biggest problems are with the pacing-- the slowest parts of the stage show are still slow-- even more painfully so-- on film, and with the casting. Emmy Rossum's Christine is perfect-- innocent, beautiful, and always teetering on the edge of bursting out of her bodice with barely-parted lips. The spitting image of a Victorian romance heroine. Patrick Wilson's Raoul also worked for me. But the most important leg of the triangle, the Phantom himself, was lacking.

The Phantom is a figure shrouded in mystery, but his vulnerability is his most important quality. When he's on stage/screen, the Phantom should radiate charisma. All eyes go to him, and nobody dares oppose him purely because of his presence. Christine loves Raoul, yet she's in the Phantom's thrall. His aura seduces and overwhelms her. When he sings, we need to hear the humanity in his voice as it caresses Christine, and the steel in it when he scolds everyone else. Above all, he is the Angel of Music-- his voice should surpass everyone else's. That's far from the case in this film. Perhaps I'm biased from listening to Michael Crawford's virtuoso performance, with transcendantly pure notes in the title song and soul-baring honesty in Music of the Night. But the movie's Phantom didn't sweep me away with his performance. His voice lacked artistry and his performance on-screen lacked presence. The success of the story hinges on believing that this man can hold sway over Christine despite the heinous acts he commits. I didn't believe.

The film is visually stunning-- baroque in the best sense of the word, bringing the Paris opera house to lush, sumptuous life. The overture sequence, where we journey back in time and witness the opera house returning to its prime in a wash of color, is strikingly effective. The staging of Masquerade is even more effective on film than on Broadway. The movie evokes a grandeur and scope that's simply impossible on stage. The descent into the Phantom's lair, on the other hand, loses its luster. The stage transformation is nothing short of magical, but on film it's merely a change of scenery.

For fans of the Broadway show, it's undoubtedly worth the $8-10 to revisit and rediscover the musical. For people who have never seen the show, this is an easy, inexpensive way to find out what all the hype is about. And for people who have never liked Phantom, this film will not change your mind.

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Glad to hear your thoughts on casting. Patrick's a friend of mine, and I've been heartsick reading his doubtless undeservedly crummy reviews.

Looking forward to seeing the movie one of these days--though I'm not a fan of the show, how could I miss it?

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