If Tuesday's entertainment took me back 11 years, then the previous Friday's outing should have taken me back even further. Before I caught the indie bug, before I even really got the hang of this thing called 'pop' that my friends liked, I was into musicals. I loved all Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, but by far my favourite was Phantom of the Opera -- not just the music but the story captivated me, and rapidly became my obsession. I bought the cassette, sent off for the libretto booklet, read Leroux's novel (in two different English translations, and then in French), read Susan Kay's eminently readable rewrite, watched every film version I could get my hands on (from the Lon Chaney silent movie to Brian de Palma's Phantom of the Paradise), and devoured every bit of information in The Complete Phantom of the Opera, from biographical details about Charles Garnier to the number of beads used in the chandelier in the stage production of the musical. Actually seeing the stage production, as a birthday treat for my 12th birthday, was everything I could have hoped for (apart from Michael Crawford! -- though Dave Willetts played the title role admirably).
15 years later I still love the story, I'm still keen to see new film versions and read new rewrites; all in all, I was determined to like this film. And with Lloyd Webber's score (which I will still defend, though it does now seem rather dated) and a budget of goodness-only-knows how many millions, I didn't think there was any way it could fail to delight. The opening sequences certainly promised great things: the moment when the grainy monochrome and dusty memories burst suddenly into a blaze of light, exploding into glorious colour along with the first chords of the famous theme, promised the sort of spine-tingling romantic excitement that the musical always held for me.
Throughout the overture the screen is as busy as an opening night: you can practically smell the greasepaint in the claustrophobic cabaret of lush costuming, flickering and dazzling lights, flashes of skin and makeup, the cheap gilt and rich colours of an decadent world of illusions. It's overdone, it's oppressive, and it's utterly gorgeous.
Unfortunately, as the musical progresses, one begins to wonder if the entire budget for the film was blown on the set for the first scenes, leaving scant resources for minor details ... like, for example, lead roles who can act. Emmy Rossum is photogenic as the wide-eyed innocent Christine, but where Sarah Brightman's caught-in-headlights stare fronted an impressive vocal range and power which was equally at home with chart hits and coloratura arias, Rossum's voice is technically competent yet peculiarly lifeless -- in fact, just the sort of voice that Christine in the original story was supposed to have before the intervention of her Angel of Music catapulted her to stratospheric stardom.
The explanation for this soon becomes apparent: her Angel of Music can't sing, either. And where Rossum can get a long way on just looking pretty, Gerald Butler as the Phantom doesn't even have that option. Instead he has to make do with one standard cloak-swirling move (which owes more to the pantomime tradition than the gothic), and what pathos he can wring from our hearts for the bad case of eczema which he hides with the famous mask; while we're left to wonder how such a mediocre voice could have hypnotised even a neurotic chorus-girl who's still in love with the ghost of her father. His swordfighting skills leave a lot to be desired, too, but one can hardly blame him for not making too much effort when he's fencing with someone as eminently forgettable as Patrick Wilson's Raoul.
It is at least aesthetically consistent with this cast of ciphers that most of their interaction takes place against the backdrop of some 80s pop videos, whose emotional shallows are pointed up by heavy-handed symbolism. So Christine magically changes (while in a moving carriage) into black clothes -- black, for mourning, see? -- in order to swirl around a graveyard full of looming angels and dry ice (resulting, incidentally, in something that looks like a first draft of the video for Madonna's "Frozen") en route to her father's grave (which, despite the fact that he was a poor violinist, is for some reason the biggest mausoleum in the entire cemetery). The Phantom calls to her from within her father's tomb, making its doors gape and glow RED (for EVIL) like a hellmouth; but Raoul comes to rescue her on a WHITE horse, because Raoul is GOOD.
The list of irritating breaks in continuity, arbitrary reordering of songs and events, clumsy direction, and excruciating visual cliché -- not to mention a bizarrely pointless flashback explaining the Phantom's dark freakshow past (which is awkwardly shoehorned in to create an extra scene or two for Miranda Richardson) and the frankly infuriating decision to render the sung dialogue as spoken doggerel -- could go on and on. Thank heaven, then, for the comic interludes, which allow for some delightfully and knowingly hammy performances from Simon Callow (ably assisted by Ciarán Hinds) and Minnie Driver. Callow and Hinds make an entertaining double-act as Opera managers André and Firmin, and Driver is wonderfully over-the-top in her role as spoilt prima donna La Carlotta. The leavening influence of the supporting cast can only go so far, though, and we're still left with over 2 hours of what could only be described as gothic fantasy if the goth in question is a 14-year-old who calls herself Dark Melody and thinks candlelight is "spooky".
I wanted to like this film. I was prepared to forgive it its deformity and its excesses, and let myself fall under its spell. But sadly, while the musical has survived nearly 20 sell-out years on the stage, it would take a hardier perennial to survive being transplanted into something which neither succeeds as a film in its own right nor does justice to the score and stagecraft of the musical. And by the time the film draws to a close I find that the emotion uppermost in my mind is relief at the announcement that "it's over now, the music of the night".