Prelude to a Phantom

Movie musical whets appetite for Vegas-bound stage version

Steve Bornfeld

Will gothic catacombs in Phantom of the Opera peel apart as out roars ... the Batmobile, engine screeching over a swelling orchestral crescendo? Will the caped Phantom swoop down and rip off his mask to reveal a winged Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney clone, operatically sobbing out the anguish of his damaged, crime-fighting soul to the musical wails of a thousand strings?

Not wholly unreasonable, given that Phantom looms between Joel Schumacherland (where freaks rule the day and darkness lights the way) and Andrew Lloyd Webberville (where understatement is overrated). Yet this overstuffed, overripe translation of the irresistibly overwrought stage smash gets under your skin.

Vegas moviegoers can consider this a screen prelude to a stage Phantom—trimmed to 90 minutes and set to menace the Venetian in 2006—and given that Webber the Wunderkind (even at age 56) is involved with both, the indicators are encouraging.

For those outside the Cult of Phantom: A bitter, disfigured musical genius (Gerard Butler) in late 19th-century Paris haunts the opera house, stalking its sewers and catacombs, prowling its catwalks and causing mysterious "accidents." But then he's smitten by Christine (Emmy Rossum), the young singer he nurtures and plans to turn into the house's new star, before her childhood friend, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), intrudes by romancing her, setting up a treacherous triangle as the Phantom kidnaps Christine to live in his lair as his underground bride.

In movie-sizing the musical, the piece feels vaguely schizophrenic, as if the first half simply apes an iconic stage show before the final portion matures into its own identity as a film of foreboding power and majesty.

But what majesty—as visually opulent and emotionally resonant as Phantom-philes could want, with Schumacher's dark-night-of-the-soul mojo fusing into composer/co-writer/producer Lloyd Webber's operatic grandeur. The sheer romantic richness of Webber's shamelessly heartrending score—crowned by "Music of the Night," "All I Ask of You," and that gothic rocker of a theme, seemingly gushing from heaven's in-house orchestra—is the stuff of tingles.

Phantom is cradled in sumptuous production values, shadow and light seductively intertwined, and punctuated by Schumacher's stylized direction. A stunning prelude to a story told in flashback follows an auction in 1919 of symbolic opera-house items key to the narrative. Schumacher frames it in grainy, choppy black-and-white as it would look in filmdom's prehistoric era, the effect nightmarish and retro-glorious. Then, a la James Cameron's rising of the Titanic to spin the story backward, color cascades over the house in a breathtaking tableau—baroque columns and balconies, elaborate gargoyles, lush velvet drapes, the grandest of grand chandeliers, the brooding beauty of the Phantom's subterranean hideout—via a sweeping camera pan. And a swordfight between the Phantom and his romantic rival, set against the chilly, snowy hue of a cemetery, pulses with dark tension.

The gorgeous visuals envelope a career-launching turn by Rossum. The dewiest ingenue in years, her innocence shot through with an almost ethereal eroticism, the curly-haired teen delicately steals the screen, and her crystalline soprano is a gift to both the ear and soul. No wonder she's an "angel of music" to the Phantom, who is imbued by Butler with admirable tragic soulfulness. But as dashing and mysterious a figure as Butler cuts in his cape and half-mask, concealing yet reminding us of his facial grotesquerie, he suffers next to this glowing creature, the screen seeming to seep away from his grasp whenever Rossum shares the frame. Such is the difference between Butler as star and Rossum as super-nova.

In supporting turns, Minnie Driver is deliciously bratty as the diva Carlotta, the tantrum-tossing star at whose expense the Phantom makes Christine the toast of Paris. Miranda Richardson adds an air of stately secretiveness as the woman who knows the Phantom's origins, and as Christine's paramour who becomes the target of the Phantom's vengeance, Patrick Wilson emotes adequately to the task.

But it's the sensory pleasures of a talented troika—Schumacher's darkly elegant direction, Lloyd Webber's knack for grand passion, and Rossum's stunning, nearly spiritual presence—that lusciously haunt this Phantom.

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