Have you ever loved someone?
Adapted from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Joe Wright’s Cyrano is given new life as a musical. The musical was written by Erica Schmidt (who retains writing credits on the film) and is made up of music from Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the alt-rock band The National, with lyrics by The National’s singer Matt Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser.
The story is somewhat familiar with famed cinematic outings in Roxanne 1987’s comedy/romance starring Steve Martin and the more traditional take in 1990’s French Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gérard Depardieu. Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is famous for his wit, wisdom, and skill with a sword but also his unique physiology, which makes him sport for the unwise. He is in love with the beautiful and intellectual Roxanne (Haley Bennett), but he fears his love can never be reciprocated because of how he looks.
When Roxanne falls in love with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a new recruit to the guards, despite never haven spoken to him, she extracts a promise from Cyrano that he will care for the young man and do all in his power to protect him. He finds that Roxanne’s love is reciprocated by Christian, but Christian’s upbringing to be a soldier has left him no time for intellectual or poetic pursuits, and the young man is “inarticulate” and unable to seduce Roxanne, whose penchant for words as romance is what she believes love to be about. Cyrano decides he will write to Roxanne on Christian’s behalf and pours his own deep-seated feelings into a series of letters that capture the lady’s heart and soul.
Joe Wright’s return to period cinema, which has been perhaps his most successful cinematic output, is a mixed bag. The film is sumptuously designed thanks to production designer Sarah Greenwood, Anna Karenina (2012), and beautifully filmed. However, the fact that it is a musical makes for a somewhat rocky road, with only a handful of songs feeling like they hit the mood the film is aiming for. Lyrically the songs are supposed to be an extension of the poetry innate in the tale of Cyrano, yet often they fall flat and don’t deliver the imagery required. The songs also seem to sometimes exist in a relatively natural fashion to the dialogue, and other times they seem like forced interludes. The hit and miss ratio is distracting, and one wonders if Dinklage and company would have been better served if the film played out as a straight drama.
The film’s strengths lay soundly with the performances. Peter Dinklage, Death at a Funeral (2007), is astonishing as Cyrano. Every tragic beat can be felt across his expressive face. His scenes with Roxanne make the audience believe that his unrequited love is justified, and their friendship runs deep and could have, should have, been more. Haley Bennett, The Devil All the Time (2020), brings a deft sensuality and deep intelligence to the role of Roxanne. She asks for more than empty tributes and longs for deep connection. Whilst she is being wooed by the odious De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, clearly relishing his villainous role), she uses her own wit and guile to best the man. Roxanne plays dangerous games, but in a world filled with deception — even with the best intentions at heart — all are playing games they can lose to tragic results.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves (2019), stands out as Christian. Usually, the role is played with Christian being somewhat expendable because he is merely good-looking but not in any other way compelling. Harrison Jr. adds depth to the part and eventually is a moral compass that Cyrano looks away from at his own detriment. Christian loves Roxanne, but as he becomes more aware of Cyrano’s devotion for her, he also becomes aware that Roxanne does not love him but rather his “soul,” which is made up of Cyrano’s prolific letters. For a character that exists as a barrier to love between the main protagonists, Harrison Jr.’s Christian is given a welcome depth and complete character arc.
Wright is best when he’s directing large-scale period pieces because he has an eye for detail and a sense of scale and majesty. Arguably his best films, Atonement (2007) and Pride and Prejudice (2005), not only worked because he was using superior source material but also because he understood how to bring the sensuality in the texts to the screen. In Cyrano, Wright doesn’t always find his footing as he did in the aforementioned films. Scenes where Roxanne is rolling about on her bed reading Christian’s (Cyrano’s) letters are overdone and lack subtlety. However, the famous balcony scene where Cyrano, through Christian, speaks of his great love for Roxanne and results in Christian’s first kiss from her is executed perfectly, giving all three leads their moments to fully inhabit their characters and gives perfect gravitas to the complicated love triangle.
Cyrano works more often than it doesn’t, but when it doesn’t, the film tends to jolt the viewer from the intricate world Schmidt and Wright are creating. As a musical, it’s really just not up to snuff in the most basic aspects. There is nothing particularly memorable about the score, and with the exception of a couple of numbers, the whole notion of the film needing to be a musical is challenged. If it weren’t for Dinklage and his wholehearted performance (even in the songs), the film would fall flat in many places. Cyrano should indeed belong to the tragic figure of Cyrano de Bergerac, and Peter Dinklage gives us a man for the ages.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney