Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Starring: Gerald Butler, Emmy Rossum, Minnie Driver, Patrick Driver, Miranda Richardson, Simon Callow

Directed by: Joel Schumacher

Rating: 1 2 3

You wanna be like Lon Chaney... as the Phantom of the Opera

The story of The Phantom of the Opera is rather like the story of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. You know, aesthetically challenged individual enthrals the world with the powaaah of his miyooozic. and along the way temporarily captures the heart of a curly permed ingénue (aka Sarah Brightman, the prototype Christine Daae). You can see why he thought that Gaston Leroux's classic tale would make a good musical. Now almost twenty years since the mega successful money spinner first opened in the West End, The Phantom has finally made in onto the silver screen.

Since his legendary silent debut in 1925, the Phantom has not had a happy film history (ever seen Brian de Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, in which the hapless ghost is reduced to plying his musical trade in a 1970s disco, his trademark cloak replaced by a nightmare nylon shirt with flyaway collars?). Just as Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 film of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde became the yardstick by which other versions would be measured, so Lon Chaney's sepulchral, skeletal monster, with his hideous death's head and hollow, burning eyes, set the standard for future phantoms - standards which have never yet been equalled, and which certainly won't be equalled by this incarnation.

Gerald Butler as the Phantom of the Opera - hilarious...

The film of the musical is just that - the entire stage show, transported lock, stock and chorus girl onto celluloid, with a bit of extra scenery and some extraneous horses thrown in to liven it up a bit. Most contemporary musical films go to great lengths to modify the traditional song and dance genre to appeal to cinema audiences (think Chicago, which placed its razzle dazzle theatricality firmly in the mind of central protagonist Roxy Hart, or Moulin Rouge!, where OTT dance numbers are deliberately staged flights of fantasy that we're not for one moment meant to take seriously). Not so The Phantom, which makes no allowances for the obvious differences between stage and screen. Like, for example, the fact that we can see the actors close up. So they no longer need to emote every expression as if a half blind old lady were sitting at the back of the gods, straining her bifocals to see. A pity, then, that someone clearly forgot to tell the cast, because every overblown, stagy gesture, every theatrical rolling of the eyes and somewhat ridiculous melodramatic swoon is faithfully replicated on the big screen. And the result? Hilarious!

Every time the poor Phantom vented his tortured misery in full Pavarotti throttle or swished his long black cape with all the villainous vigour of the Hooded Claw, I'm afraid I fell about laughing. Sure, Scots lad Gerald Butler does his best to make the role his own, combining vocal shades of Michael Crawford (the show's original star) with a smouldering, dark eroticism that would be sexy if it wasn't so... funny. But he's soooo much larger than life I'm surprised he manages to fit on the screen, and in glorious Technicolor close up, all that enunciation and posturing is just too much to bear.

Plus, are we really supposed to believe that that elegant, itty-bitty mask can really conceal the expanse of burnt, disfigured skin that's eventually (and rather anti-climactically) revealed at the end of the film?

Patrick Wilson as limp rag Raoul and Emmy Rossum as Opera Barbie Christine in The Phantom of the Opera

But when it comes to suspending disbelief, the Phantom's mask is only the beginning. We can just about manage to take the action (semi) seriously when it's unfolding on stage in the Paris Opera House, accompanied by trademark Lloyd Webber pseudo classical tunesmithery. We can just about accept that chorus girl Christine Daae truly believes that the disembodied voice that speaks to her through the walls of her dressing room and teaches her to sing is the 'Angel of Music', sent to watch over her by her dead father (even if we're not quite convinced by Brookie's Jennifer Ellison as her best friend, Meg). But the minute the embarrassingly dated '80s beats of the title track kick in and the Phantom appears in the flesh to drag her down to the dungeon of his black despair... guess what? We're suddenly helpless with laughter.

And as for Christine Daae herself - well, singer Emmy Rossum has a charming voice but I think the Phantom needed to be handing out acting lessons as well. She really is the original crying, talking, sleeping, walking Opera Barbie doll, complete with bee-stung, lip-glossed pout and utterly vacant expression. Caught between the devil and, um, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), she spends the entire film vacillating weakly between a masochistic urge to surrender to her ghostly mentor and a desire for a nice, cosy future as the Comtesse de Chagny.

Although really, it's not much of a choice. Reclusive creepy stalker or limp token hero with spammy hair? (Although all power to the man - he does a good job of belting out a ballad with a noose slowly tightening round his throat.)

Minnie Driver shines as diva La Carlotta

But if we're handing out prizes for acting then all the accolades have to go to Minnie Driver, as über diva La Carlotta. Yes, they may have dubbed her singing voice, but she still shines like a true star and steals every scene she appears in. And then there's Miranda Richardson, as the sinister Madame Giry (question: why, when everyone (apart from La Carlotta) is supposed to be French, does only Madame Giry have a accent?) and the lovely Simon Callow as the unfortunately owner of the haunted theatre. And Jennifer Ellison, who actually is fairly sweet.

But all this criticism doesn't mean that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera isn't wildly entertaining. The settings and costumes are gorgeously sumptuous and some of the set pieces are fantastic: 'Prima Donna' is marvellous, the mock Mozart sex romp is an absolute joy and the graveyard scene looks great, featuring some cool Tim Burtonesque tombs in snow and a truly appalling, cack-handed sword fight. (Although I still don't see the point of 'Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again'. Stupid song.) All in all, there's never a dull moment (except possibly barfsome ballad 'All I Ask Of You', but you do get a particularly funny Phantom moment at the end) and, of course, the music is just fab.

Cuz it's awfully easy to knock ol' Lord LW, isn't it, with his faux classical pretensions and enormous popularity with the uncultured masses? But you only have to sit through a few non-ALW musicals (a prime example being the lamentable Jekyll and Hyde) to realise that the ability to write insanely catchy tunes that are instantly accessible to all is not a talent to be dismissed lightly. I defy you to see this film and not come out humming the title track.

Oh, and I also defy you to see this film and not giggle. Laugh? I almost broke into spontaneous song...

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