Monday, January 19, 2015

Classics: A Review of The Phantom of the Opera By Lauren Ennis

Music is one of the few art forms that is able to cross social, economic, and historical barriers to be embraced by people of all kinds in all eras. Although nearly every emotion, passion, and desire can be found within the notes of music, the most common musical theme is love. This week’s film explores the obsessive love between a composer and his music that is carried over to a dangerous extent to his muse. Through a combination of lavish atmosphere, genuine emotion, and unforgettable songs 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera is a fitting ode to the power, enchantment, and seduction of music.
If nothing else, the man does have lakefront property

The story begins during an auction at the fictional Opera Populaire in 1919 Paris. During the auction, Viscount Raul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) purchases a mysterious music box and hints at the box’s relation to some unspecified tragedy. The auctioneer then moves on to the sale of the opera house’s chandelier that caused an infamous fire in 1870. With that sale, Raul reflects upon his experiences at the opera house in the distant days of its glory, launching a flashback that lasts for the majority of the film. The flashback brings the story back to 1870 as Raul, then a new patron of the opera house, sits in on rehearsal for an upcoming production. The rehearsal ushers in several drastic changes as the owner (James Fleet) announces his stress-induced retirement, the theater’s new owners arrive (Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow), and the reigning primadonna (Minnie Driver) walks out after a nearly fatal accident, only to be replaced by an unexpectedly talented chorus girl. The chorus girl, Christine (Emmy Rossum), is revealed to be a musical prodigy from a family of prominent musicians and Raul’s former childhood sweetheart. Christine’s debut in the lead role makes her an overnight success and prompts Raul to rekindle their acquaintance. He soon learns, however, that she is still haunted by the death of her father years earlier and is fixated upon her visits from the supposed ‘angel of music’. While Raul brushes off her visitor as childish make-believe, Christine’s angel makes an appearance that night and is revealed to be a less than heavenly presence. The ‘angel’ is actually the mysterious figure known as the ‘phantom of the opera’ (Gerard Butler), a masked man whose facial deformities have forced him to find refuge in the catacombs beneath the opera house. The phantom then confesses his love for her and reveals that it was his sabotage of the previous primadonna that led to Christine being cast in the production.  Although flattered by his attentions, the phantom’s violent temper and escalating obsession with her leads her to question where her loyalties lie. Torn between the tormented genius of the phantom and the stable comfort of Raul, she is ultimately forced to find her own voice at the risk of her career, freedom, and even her life.

Although stage productions are often difficult to translate to the screen, The Phantom of the Opera makes an almost seamless transition.  The film utilizes a set that is largely faithful to the original designs for the stage production and underscores the story’s themes by juxtaposing the isolated refinement of the phantom and the garish luxury of the world of the opera house. The set and costumes also succeed at placing the story within a specific time and place, which allows the almost otherworldly events of the plot to remain grounded within the limits of its historical setting. The film also succeeds at conveying its story through equal parts acting and song; a feat which too many musicals have failed to accomplish. The cast is derived primarily from film, and as a result all of the actors are able to portray their characters with a complexity and subtlety that ensures the story remains engaging and believable. Perhaps even more crucially, each of the central players possess the musical ability to sing their roles in such a way that does complete justice to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic score, and could win over even the most devoted fans of the original stage show. Through the skill of the cast and crew, the film remains remarkably balanced and conveys its tortured romance without either the acting, visuals, or music ever upstaging the plot.  
Decisions, decisions...

Despite the inherent risks in bringing a much loved stage production to the screen, The Phantom of the Opera actually succeeds in areas that the original show fell flat. In the stage show, the phantom is an enigmatic character whose motivations remain murky throughout the plot. While this ambiguity provides excellent tension early on, it becomes frustrating as the story progresses and leaves the phantom’s internal struggles lacking and emotional core. Similarly, Christine’s fixation upon the phantom is initially explained by her grief over her father’s death, but there is little explanation for her continued interest in the phantom after his identity is revealed. Because film is a more intimate medium that lends itself to internal conflict within its characters, the film is able to develop the motivations of both of its leads in a way that lends credibility to their gothic romance. Rather than merely disfigured, the phantom is revealed to have suffered abuse and neglect when he was forced to perform in a freak show as a child. The humiliation and degradation that he endured in his childhood has clearly left his psyche just as scarred as his face, and led him to harbor a bitter antagonism against society and its hypocrisy. Similarly, Christine’s attraction to the phantom is found to be rooted in their shared status as social outsiders. As a result, she is able to let her guard down and reveal the aspects of herself to the phantom that she would never dare show to anyone else. Through his mentoring and efforts to promote her career, phantom also represents the unknown and her future as an artist whereas her relationship with Raul is still relegated to nostalgia for her past. Thus, Christine’s central struggle is not just between the two men in her life but also between her past and present just as the phantom’s quest to win Christine is one part of his greater quest to win acceptance as an artist and member of society. Through these script additions, the film adds more depth and detail to the beloved story in a way that makes the film both an excellent companion piece to the stage production and exhilarating stand-alone experience.

Through its combination of fascinating script, eye-catching costumes, dazzling effects, and soaring songs, The Phantom of the Opera is a piece that holds appeal for filmgoers and theatergoers alike. In its exploration of romance and social ostracism the film relates the power of music to redeem and transport us even within our darkest moments. The superb performances, and intimate direction brings the story to life in a way that makes the film equally as spectacular as its stage predecessor. This film is a must see for fans of excellent story-telling, romance, theater, and of course, the music of the night.
Nothing a little plastic surgery and psychiatric therapy couldn't cure


  1. How well do you think this one holds up to Universal Studios "The Phantom of the Opera" w/ Lon Chaney from the 1920's???

  2. That's a tough call because they're really two different genres; the 2004 version is a musical romance whereas the 1920's version is faithful to the book's mystery format and focuses more on the horror aspect than the romance. Both are great movies in my book, maybe I'll do a comparison of several cinema phantoms one of these days...