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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
January 7, 2005

Music of the night

Phantom movie is faithful to the
stage musical, maybe too much so

By Kaizaad Kotwal

Andrew Lloyd Webber�s musical version of Gaston Leroux�s novel The Phantom of the Opera is the largest grossing production in the world. Since its debut in London�s West End in 1986, more than 65,000 performances have been staged in 18 countries, bringing in $3.2 billion at the box office and over 50 major awards.

Now, out director Joel Schumacher is gunning for more with his screen adaptation of the stage musical. The film, 15 years in the making, presents a new cast of young actors, all trying to fill very big shoes.

The story of Phantom is well known. An innocent chorus girl, Christine Daae, becomes an overnight sensation at the opera where an �Angel of Music� loves and protects her. He is the Phantom, a disfigured musical genius who haunts the theater. Christine soon finds herself courted by the theater�s wealthy patron, the Vicompte Raoul de Chagny. This enrages the Phantom and his obsession threatens to drive the fated lovers past the point of no return.

Phantom seemed as far from twelve days in a phone booth as I could get,� Schumacher says in the press notes. �I�ve done so many different genres, but never a musical. It seemed like a huge challenge and I like that.�

The director said he was also compelled to make the film because �there are millions of people who cannot afford to see Phantom in a legitimate theater, and many people don�t live in an area where they can get to a theater where the musical is playing.�

The film remains very faithful to the original and that might be its only flaw. Unlike the movie of Chicago a few years ago, Phantom is almost a stage film.

Scottish-born Gerald Butler (Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life) takes on the large role of the Phantom and does so with aplomb. (There was a bit of a media hullabaloo when director Schumacher all but outed his star.)

Emmy Rossum (Mystic River) plays Christine Daae. Rossum was chosen at age 7 to join the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center as a member of the Children�s Chorus. She is a revelation here, playing the innocent and terrified ing�nue with grace and beauty.

Patrick Wilson has quickly emerged as one of the hottest acting talents in years and here he continues to add to his acting r�sum� as Raoul. Wilson starred in and received a Golden Globe for Angels in America as the repressed Mormon Joe Pitt.

Versatile actress Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game) plays Madame Giry, the ballet mistress who knows more about the mysterious events at the Opera Populaire--and the Phantom--than she cares to reveal. Minnie Driver, who plays the diva Carlotta, has made several guest appearances on Will & Grace. Driver is astonishing here chewing up the scenery (and there�s a lot of it here) and anyone in her way.

The openly gay Simon Callow (Shakespeare in Love) and Ciaran Hinds (Road to Perdition) play theater buff Andre and the business-minded Firmin, respectively. The two accomplished character actors are both solid here as always.

Lloyd Webber and lyricist Charles Hart composed an entirely new song for the film, Learn to be Lonely, sung by Driver.

The task of capturing the spirit of the period and infusing it with a stylized reality fell to production designer Anthony Pratt. The sets, built on eight stages at Pinewood Studios, are absolutely sumptuous.

The costumes of 1870s Paris are by Alexandra Byrne who is sure to add to her Academy Award nominations for Elizabeth and Hamlet. Peter Darling (Billy Elliot) provides visually dynamic choreography for the film.

Schumacher, who also wrote the screenplay for Phantom with Lloyd Weber, is one of America�s most successful filmmakers. He�s had downs with Flawless about a drag queen�s relationship with a surly, homophobic cop and great ups with Tigerland, about young men training for Vietnam in 1971, Phone Booth, Lost Boys, St. Elmo�s Fire and The Incredible Shrinking Woman, with perennially semi-out lesbian Lily Tomlin.

Here he is a bit out of his element, mainly because he is unable to bring a refreshing cinematic angle to the stage play. Purists of the musical will love his work because he has been as faithful to the original as the cinematic genre will allow.

John Matheison (Gladiator) provides lush cinematography to the film, working with Schumacher to stay faithful to the play. Terry Rawlings (Chariots of Fire) edits with speed and panache.

This is a solid film. One only wishes that the film makers had not been haunted by the stage Phantom, and let their creative juices run more freely for an equally memorable cinema version.


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