There have been numerous big-screen adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera over the years, from Lon Chaney’s classic 1925 horror film to a 1989 version starring Robert Englund (aka Freddy Kruger) as the hideously scarred aria lover. But this long-awaited feature is the first based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony Award-winning musical, which is less a horror film than a haunting tale of obsession, jealousy and unrequited love.
It’s 1870. Innocent young Christine Daae is a talented chorus girl with a Paris opera company that has just been bought by naïve scrap metal magnates Andre and Firmin. The men, feeling their way in this new venture, find themselves at the mercy of reigning diva Carlotta, a narcissistic, temperamental Italian soprano used to getting her way. But another, more shadowy figure dictates policy and procedure at the opera house with an even tighter fist: The Phantom. Cast off as a freak at an early age, this masked mad genius has created a subterranean home beneath the theater and taken an obsessive interest in the lovely, golden-throated orphan Christine. Only ballet instructor Madame Giry knows the secrets behind the Phantom, and shares them sparingly.
We learn that Christine is still having a hard time coping with the death of her father, a renowned violinist who promised her, “When I am in heaven I will send the angel of music to you.” Christine assumes that the Phantom is that enchanted angel, an elusive tutor who has been using dreamlike encounters to prepare her for stardom. And her time has come. When Carlotta storms out on a production mid-rehearsal, Christine gets the call and becomes an overnight sensation. She is also reunited with childhood sweetheart Raoul, a wealthy theatergoer who holds the key to her heart, but must break the Phantom’s spell if the couple hopes to live happily ever after. The more the Phantom’s plans are threatened, the more vicious he becomes. [Warning: Spoilers Throughout]
In a flashback, a caring young Madame Giry helps a tormented boy escape a gypsy freak show and leads him to a place of refuge. The Phantom cares deeply for Christine and wants to see her succeed, making him sympathetic at first, if creepy and misguided. Also, he represents that part of us we’d be ashamed for others to see—the part that tempts us to put on a “mask” or retreat from society.
Christine models unconditional love, showing sympathy and compassion for the Phantom, never recoiling at his disfigurement. To save Raoul, Christine is willing to sacrifice her own happiness. Raoul spares the Phantom’s life during a sword fight. In an act of mercy and selfless love, the Phantom releases Christine to share her life with Raoul.
Raoul’s devotion to Christine extends beyond death. So does the Phantom’s. Madame Giry comes to Raoul’s aid and offers him wise counsel. Carlotta’s selfish diva behavior is portrayed negatively.
“Music of the Night” implies that music can be an intoxicating force able to deceive and unleash fantasies—which it can—and asks, “Dare you trust the music of the night?”
Angels appear in statues, paintings, stained-glass windows and other religious icons. Christine lights a candle to honor her deceased dad, and she acknowledges a divine presence, though her problems with the Phantom are birthed by spiritual confusion. Says director Joel Schumacher, “Part of the beauty of her character is her attachment to her father and her belief that the Phantom might actually be a representation of him from beyond the grave.” But as she clings to her father’s promise to send an “angel of music” to minister to her, she opens herself up to counterfeits. A friend asks, “Do you think the spirit of your father is coaching you?” She replies, “Who else?” This illustrates how evil can masquerade as light, but there’s an eerie sense that Christine believes she can still communicate with her dead father. Elsewhere, the Phantom refers to himself as a “gargoyle who burns in hell, yet yearns for heaven.” A gypsy woman offers to tell fortunes with a crystal ball.
The Phantom of the Opera’s songs aren’t explicit, but the issues of longing and seduction become more of a concern combined with the film’s sexually charged imagery. “Music of the Night” describes the seductive power of music, but also plays at a sensual level as the Phantom runs his hands over Christine’s torso and sings lines such as, “Music shall caress you … open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind … let your darker side give in.”
Gold statues of bare-breasted women are located throughout the theater, occasionally shown in close-up. Costumes expose chorus girls’ midriffs. Others reveal cleavage or accentuate ample bosoms. Within the context of a play, the Phantom and Christine share the duet “The Point of No Return,” which casts off thoughts of right or wrong and asks, “How long should we two wait before we’re one?” During it, Christine lets her dress slip seductively off of her shoulders, and dancers along the sidelines vogue in mock make-out mode as if they’d just stepped out of a Robert Palmer video.
Christine and Raoul kiss passionately. She also kisses the Phantom. Fleeting lines imply that Christine worries the Phantom might have rape on his mind, while the deformed genius mourns the fact that his condition has deprived him of “the joys of the flesh.”
A huge chandelier falls from the ceiling, sending theatergoers scrambling before its candles set the opera house ablaze. A woman slaps a man across the face. The Phantom harasses Carlotta by sending a heavy backdrop tumbling toward her. He strangles a stage hand and tosses his tethered body into the middle of a performance, and later kills an actor (implied, body shown). A man is knocked unconscious. Raoul and the Phantom cross swords, leaving Raoul bloodied. A caged boy strangles his captor. Raoul tumbles through a trap door and nearly drowns before being bound and choked by the Phantom. The Phantom angrily smashes mirrors with a candlestick.
A half-dozen mild profanities (“d‑‑n,” “h‑‑‑”) or exclamatory uses of God’s name (“my god,” “for god’s sake”) appear in dialogue and song lyrics.
Numerous shots of people taking swigs from liquor bottles. A woman does so for courage before delivering bad news. Andre and Firmin smoke cigars and drink alcohol. A costume ball includes an open bar.
Backstage, an insolent man moons Carlotta (bare backside shown). Although there’s no gender-bending intended, a girl playing a male role during a performance pretends to kiss a girl in a female role.
I first saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway in 1988, and have since felt both anticipation and apprehension at the thought of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical being adapted for the big screen. Well, it’s finally here.
On the whole the movie isn’t bad, but it could have been stronger. For starters, the Phantom himself is a disappointment. I don’t fault Gerard Butler. The actor gives a solid effort but is simply miscast. His singing voice isn’t up to the task, bailing out on notes with a slight rock-star bark that sounds out of place among a cast of very gifted, classically trained vocalists. The other problem with the character involves the camera’s up-close, personal view of him. Watching stage actors from 40 rows deep preserves a sense of mystery and ambiguity that helps establish the Phantom as a more imposing, enigmatic figure. Almost otherworldly. Here, during the pivotal number “The Phantom of the Opera,” he’s shown escorting Christine into his lair with such mortal clarity that it sucks away any foggy, gothic sense of wonder. Consequently, we have a harder time understanding why Christine remains under the guy’s spell, and why she directs misty, contemplative tunes heavenward with a blank stare that suggests lots of prescription medication. I prefer my heroines a bit more lucid.
Meanwhile, Joel Schumacher’s direction ranges from brilliant to static. Some of his images are stunning. He excels when creating bustling production numbers (“Prima Donna,” “Masquerade”), glimpses into the backstage world of the opera and shots such as the majestic opening sequence. In it, a sepia photo comes to life in black and white. The camera proceeds to take viewers inside the now-dilapidated Paris opera house, then strips away the years before our eyes, reversing time and restoring the facility to its colorful former glory for the start of the story. Impressive.
Batman & Robin revealed the director’s knack for elaborate set pieces and kinetic visual gimmickry. Of course, that superhero sequel bored audiences to tears and sent the franchise into hibernation because it lacked a compelling story and complex characters. All style, no substance. Here Schumacher has a lot more to work with, though he still tends to invest more in the costumes and art direction than in the subtleties of character development.
Similarly, while it makes sense to limit a stage actor’s movement (a person can only bounce around so much and still hold a note), Rossum seems stifled and passionless. Is Schumacher making a movie or filming the Broadway play? Since no one thinks for a moment that the principals aren’t lip-synching to their own prerecorded tracks, why not take advantage of that and make their scenes more dynamic? Let Rossum move around a little. Let her face do more acting and less “note forming.” If Schumacher had directed The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews wouldn’t have spun around wildly in the field; she would have strolled slowly through the grass with her hands folded.
Fortunately, a constant bed of sumptuous music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart provides a welcome distraction from those flaws. “The Music of the Night,” “Angel of Music,” and “All I Ask of You” are sweeping and expressive, and remain the primary reason to check out the nearly 2 1/2-hour film.
As for moral content, the story includes several homicides, a half-dozen profanities and some mildly erotic images added by the filmmakers (another instance where seeing things up-close is a disadvantage). Also, I should note that the seductive nature of music and the Phantom’s haunting deception of Christine can leave vastly different impressions on different people. I remember exiting New York’s Majestic Theater in 1988 emboldened by the reminder that evil can present itself as an angel of light—or angel of music. It made me think that Jesus, like Raoul, wants to rescue us from that funk, and He considers no sacrifice too great to do it. For me, Phantom became a meaningful parable. Conversely, I recall a friend telling me that she felt spiritually oppressed. Such things are worth considering before spending a night at the Opera.