Review: “The Phantom of the Opera”

I like Andrew Lloyd Webber. I like Joel Schumacher. Sure the pair have brought such laughably bad productions to fruit as “Starlight Express” and “Batman & Robin”, but they’re also the same men behind fun schlock like “Cats”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “The Lost Boys” and “Phone Booth”. You would think that Schumacher’s ability to bring over the top theatrical design & performances combined with Webber’s melodramatic somewhat cheesy stories would be a match made in heaven wouldn’t you? Unfortunately it proves to be more of a self-indulgence than anything else.

After a decade of waiting, the film version of Webber’s most famous piece finally comes to the screen. The costumes and sets are lavish, all of the songs (plus the odd new one) are here, the cast try their hardest with what material they have and Schumacher manages to keep the action moving for the most part, along with delivering a couple of real show-stopping numbers like “Masquerade” and “Music of the Night”. Yet throughout its overly long runtime, I find myself asking no-one in particular – “why did they bother?”.

Having never seen the stage show I can’t comment from a ‘comparative’ perspective or from the viewpoint of a fan. I can though comment as a newcomer to say that quite frankly Webber’s play feels like a rather bloated and dull piece. I’ve read and seen film adaptations of the original novel on which it’s based and the idea for the story is quite sound, but in Webber’s version none of the characters have any real life to them and the central conflicts just aren’t that interesting. The Phantom is a creature that’s supposed to be terrifying, pitiable and in his own way noble – that never truly resonates here.

On top of that the score, whilst at times superb, is useless for the most part. Like most Webber, there’s practically no dialogue – rather just conversations and heaps of exposition delivered with rhyme and music. It becomes so irritating that when the great songs do show up they lose a lot of their impact. Of course much of Webber’s play revolves around the special effects in the theatre, but things which seem jaw-dropping in that environment (like the chandelier falling) are merely vague pulses of excitement in an otherwise cool affair.

When it comes to the film’s cast, Emmy Rossum easily stands out of the pack. The young actress from “The Day After Tomorrow” truly shines as the ingenue Christine with a stellar voice and an easily likeable yet fragile demeanor. Miranda Richardson deserves praise for her understated (for once) work, and Ciaran Hinds & Simon Cowell deliver the silliness required for their parts as the theatre’s owners.

On the other hand though, Patrick Wilson is decidedly bland as Raoul, Minnie Driver combines an annoying role with an ingratiating performance to deliver a character people will despise far more than the part actually requires, and as for Gerard Butler as The Phantom himself? Armed with bad makeup on an otherwise handsome face, the man does have a decent voice but this is a role which requires somebody extraordinary which he’s just not.

Some moments do shine – the opening, the ball, the end opera, etc. but other big moments like the mirror reveal or the graveyard scene just drag on forever as the audience twiddles its thumbs. A musical adaptation like “Chicago” understood pacing and felt safe enough to change the original play’s story around to work in a clever way in this new medium. Schumacher seems too afraid to mess with the material and so does his best with an almost literal translation. It’s a noble effort but sadly one that fails to sweep us up into its grandiose story. Not a bad show, but a disappointment nonetheless.