Peter Dinklage steals the show in Joe Wright’s musical version of the classic text
Dir: Joe Wright. UK. 2021. 124 mins
Peter Dinklage’s melancholy eyes express so much in Cyrano, a wistful musical remake of the oft-told tale of a man who believes his true love could never possibly think of him as a suitable romantic partner. Based on Erica Schmidt’s 2018 stage show, which also starred Dinklage in the title role, the film is very much akin to director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, once again attacking a literary classic with stylistic flourishes and a playful air of inventiveness. But despite some flaws, this Cyrano is frequently moving, aided by a suite of songs from the moody indie-rock outfit The National.
Cyrano De Bergerac is such a beloved work that it’s understandable why any filmmaker would want to take it on — although the challenge then becomes how to bring freshness to this venerable love story
After making its debut in Telluride, the musical drama will arrive in US theatres on December 31, opening in the UK in mid-January. Dinklage is joined by Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ben Mendelsohn, and Wright’s track record of well-regarded prestige pictures - with the notable exception of last year’s poorly-received Hitchcock homage The Woman In The Window - may entice arthouse crowds. Cyrano certainly hopes to be part of awards-season conversation, and audiences familiar with the Edmond Rostand play, which has previously been adapted for 1987’s Roxanne and 1990’s Cyrano De Bergerac (with Gerard Depardieu), will no doubt be intrigued.
Set in an unspecified time around the 17th or early 18th century in Italy, the film stars Dinklage as Cyrano, a gallant soldier and cutting wordsmith who pays no mind to fools who make fun of his short stature. He secretly adores his longtime friend Roxanne (Bennett), although he tells himself that such a beauty could never love him. Roxanne is courted by the obnoxious, wealthy Duke De Guiche (Mendelsohn), but one day she confesses to Cyrano that she loves Christian (Harrison), a new recruit in his regiment. This news devastates Cyrano, but because he wants her to be happy, he conspires with Christian, who is captivated by Roxanne, to pen the young man’s notes to her.
Written in the late 19th century, Cyrano De Bergerac is such a beloved work that it’s understandable why any filmmaker would want to take it on — although the challenge then becomes how to bring freshness to this venerable love story. Wright mostly sidesteps such issues by emphasising the vividness of the Italian locales and the richness of his longtime collaborator Sarah Greenwood’s production design, which has almost a fairy-tale quality.
But Cyrano is especially aided by the original musical’s songs, written by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, twin brothers who are part of the New York band The National. (National frontman Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser handled the lyrics.) For fans of the group’s guarded romanticism, Cyrano gives their music a bolder canvas — and the live singing by Dinklage and the rest of the cast articulates the characters’ mix of passion and vulnerability as they struggle with revealing their true feelings.
Dinklage may not be a traditionally powerful vocalist, but that plays into his portrayal of Cyrano, whose inner beauty is meant to outshine what he perceives to be his physical deficiencies. Of course, Dinklage is such a compelling onscreen presence — his face able to suggest subtle gradations of anger, longing or regret — that it might be hard to imagine why Roxanne wouldn’t fall for him. But as a singer he conveys the character’s poetry and beating heart with a touching immediacy.
Schmidt, Dinklage’s wife, wrote the screenplay for Cyrano based on her musical, and she challenges what is inherently sexist about the source material. (Essentially, Roxanne isn’t astute enough to realise that her longtime friend is writing these wooing words, coupled with the idea that she’d prefer the blandly handsome dullard to the far more soulful and romantic Cyrano.) Those alterations to the text are welcome without compromising Wright’s swooning vision of unrequited love.
The supporting cast prove to be a lively bunch, even if they lack the depth Dinklage effortlessly brings to the loyal, heartbroken Cyrano. Harrison is admirably nuanced as Christian, who genuinely loves Roxanne but grows increasingly conflicted about letting Cyrano do the linguistic heavy-lifting for him. Mendelsohn is a bit broad as the story’s boo-hiss villain, but Bennett (who appeared alongside Dinklage in the stage version) is lovely portraying a sensitive woman who recognises too late Cyrano’s abiding affection for her.
The vivid performances capably capture the humanity at the centre of a film that can sometimes be dominated by Wright’s showy excesses — in particular, his overly elaborate set pieces. But there’s no mistaking Cyrano’s sense of tragedy, its lament for soulmates destined not to get their happy ending. The Nationals help bring those emotions to the surface, but Dinklage makes them sing.
Production company: Working Title
Worldwide distribution: Universal
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Guy Heeley
Screenplay: Erica Schmidt, based on the stage musical adapted and directed by Erica Schmidt from Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, music by Aaron & Bryce Dessner, lyrics by Matt Berninger & Carin Besser.
Production design: Sarah Greenwood
Editing: Valerio Bonelli
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Bryce Dessner & Aaron Dessner
Main cast: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn, Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Dolan