Release Date:  January 21, 2005 (limited 12/22/04)
Rating:  PG-13 (for brief violent images)
Genre:   Musical/Drama/Romance
Run Time: 2 hrs. 23 min.
Director:   Joel Schumacher
Actors:   Gerard Butler, Emily Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver

After 15 years in the making, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” has finally been brought to screen.  And for this “phan,” the film version is sheer delight.

It’s 1917, and through the gritty lens of black and white film, we watch as an elegant older woman nods to an elderly viscount in a wheelchair.  The two have come to the Paris Opera House to bid on the historic contents of the building, which has fallen into disrepair.  All of the items are sold for a pittance, until the auctioneer unveils his pièce de resistance – the magnificent crystal chandelier that once illuminated the old theatre.  As they watch, the chandelier hoists itself into the air, where each of its candles suddenly burst into flames, thrusting us back to 1870.

La Carlotta (Minnie Driver) is a volatile diva who can’t sing a note, but when she quits the show yet again, the theatre’s new managers (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds) are beside themselves.  Ballet mistress Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) knows exactly what to do, however.  She suggests they cast Christine Daae (Emily Rossum) in the lead.  Although Christine is a mere chorus girl, Madame Giry informs them that she has been taking voice lessons from a genius.

With no other choice, the managers agree, but they need not fear, for Christine’s performance awes audiences.  The opera’s new patron, wealthy Viscount Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), is also enthralled.  He and Christine were childhood friends, but now they’re grown up and can’t stop thinking about each other.  But when Christine goes to thank the “Angel of Music,” her mysterious muse that she believes is the voice of her dead father, she is spirited away into the bowels of the opera house. There, she finally meets the phantom of the opera house – a musical genius who wants Christine as his lover.

The phantom allows Christine to return above ground, but insists that she star in his production.  When the managers refuse, the phantom takes deadly action.  Meanwhile, Christine has fallen in love with Raoul.   However, the phantom isn’t ready to give her up yet, so he convinces Raoul to stage his musical, ‘Don Juan,’ with him – and Christine – in the lead.

It’s the rare film critic who will have seen a “Phantom” stage show, much less one in London or New York.  Moreover, not everyone appreciates musicals, so I expect the reviews of this film to be very mixed.  But no matter where you stand, you can’t help but be impressed.  “Phantom of the Opera” is the largest grossing stage or screen production in the world, with more than 65,000 performances staged for more than 80 million people in 18 countries.  The production has earned more than 50 major awards and garnered more than $3.2 billion in box office receipts, since its debut in London’s West End at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1986.

I’ve seen the London stage production, and even had the honor of watching the amazing Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman (who was married to Lloyd Webber at the time).  And, while the Scottish Butler (last seen in “Laura Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) definitely isn’t Crawford, he nevertheless gives a winsome performance and hits all the right notes.  It’s even more impressive when you realize that Butler had to learn to sing for the part.  His character isn’t as dark as the phantom of the stage show, but that phantom isn’t as ominous as the one in the book (by the same name, written in French in 1911, by Gaston Leroux), which inspired Lloyd Webber.