The film version of The Phantom of the Opera is almost a complete misfire. Based on already shakily constructed material, the film strips away anything and everything that worked in the stage show. What should have been, at the least, a visual feast turns out to be a crashing bore.
The adaptation, by Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber, saddles the film with awkwardly conceived additions to the framework story and the poorly considered decision to use sung recitative as speech. Simply shifting the mode from one form to the other (with the change of medium as justification) doesn’t work: recitative is heightened, much like Shakespeare’s blank verse, and is not intended to be spoken but to be song. If Schumacher and Lloyd Webber wanted to construct a more traditional book musical for the film, in any case a poor choice for this material, they should have rewritten the verses as dialogue from scratch.
The direction, by Schumacher, is all over the place. Is this high camp? Is this melodrama? Is it a dark, post-modern operetta? I doubt Schumacher could answer this question and the film shows it. There is little stylistic unity, but there is nothing playful or political enough for the film to be a truly post-modern take of the story. All that Schumacher’s dreadful direction and Peter Darling’s poorly conceived staging for the dances – I hesitate to call it choreography – does is make one appreciate the Harold Prince and Gillian Lynne’s brilliant contribution to the stage show even more.
Visually, the film is sumptuously, but not always well designed. The Phantom’s make-up represents a poor effort in that department; the costumes for the “Masquerade” sequence are designed using a woefully spare palate; and the Phantom’s lair is a triumph of mediocrity. Once again, it makes one appreciate the stage show even more. Maria Björnson’s designs may not reach for the realism that film requires, but they are truly brilliant.
Then we get to the cast. First off, the film is unevenly cast. Some, like Patrick Wilson (Raoul) and Simon Callow (André) should be able to do this kind of thing in their sleep. Others are less suited to their roles, like Gerard Butler, a younger and sexier Phantom than usual, at least more so than the character was conceived in the original production, who lacks the vocal elasticity and control for the role. Emmy Rossum comes across as bland, delivering a performance that just never goes anywhere. The root of the problem, I feel, is the direction. It’s as if nobody here is in the same film and everyone was just playing around on their own steam while the cameras rolled. With a brilliant director, even this cast might have delivered the goods; with Schumacher at the helm they never had a chance.
There are moments of magic to be had, such as the transformation from the monochromatic prologue into full the colour main body of the film and the much of the subsequent tour through the opera house or some of the excesses to which Minnie Driver’s Carlotta, with vocal help from Margaret Preece who sings the role brilliantly, is subjected during “Prima Donna”. However, these moments are few and far between.
One might ask why it’s worth bothering to buy the film on DVD or Blu-Ray if the film is so bad. Get it for the brilliant “Behind the Mask” documentary, a feature that deals with the making of the show more than the movie and offers up clips from the stage production and some of the original performances of the songs, with vastly different lyrics, as it was presented in a draft from at Lloyd Webber’s own musical festival at Sydmonton. That bonus feature alone is worth the price of the DVD for fans of the show.
Review of the Albert Hall 25th Anniversary Recording to follow shortly.