Lovestruck poet/soldier Cyrano (Dinklage) is unable to express his deeply buried feelings for his childhood friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). When she falls in love with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Cyrano is devastated, but wants Roxanne to be happy and helps her romantic rival write love letters to woo her own crush.
Joe Wrights Cyrano opens onto a beautifully framed image of a marionette. After his failed attempt at a noir-y thriller The woman in the windowthe director, whose parents ran a puppet theater, has returned to firmer, more fertile ground, ironically by turning to his more experimental side: a musical adaptation of edmond rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano of Bergerac, based on the 2018 stage show by Erica Schmidt, voiced by The National and filmed in Sicily during the pandemic. It may be eccentric rather than engaging, and can’t escape the yarn’s worn contours, but it’s regularly inventive, lush like everything else, and grounded by a charismatic Peter Dinklage performance.
Dinklage brought this incarnation to life on stage (he’s married to creator Schmidt) and the reinvention is a feat, his physical difference instantly feeling more compelling and poignant than the character’s traditional oversized siren. His garrulous Cyrano is a skilled swordsman with the courage to easily cut down ten attackers – the fights are beautifully staged by Wright – but lacks the guts to express his feelings for his childhood friend, Roxanne (The girl on the trainby Haley Bennett). But when Roxanne falls quickly and deeply in love with the ridiculously handsome soldier Christian (waves‘Kelvin Harrison Jr) Cyrano sees an opportunity to safely share his enthusiasm by writing love letters for the inarticulate military man. “I’ll make you eloquent,” he suggests, “while you make me look good.”
When Cyrano has precedent in Wright’s back catalogue, it’s his adaptation of Anna Karenina, bringing a mix of playfulness and high style to another revered classic. with lavish costumes, theatrical production design and impeccably orchestrated camera movements. Sometimes his MO seems unnecessarily flourish, other times he gets it just right: the way he enacts the story’s infamous balcony scene – in which Cyrano has to speak Christian’s words – is both believable and magical.
Even if his vocals aren’t the strongest, this is Dinklage’s film.
Composed by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner – with lead singer Matt Berninger and Carin Besser contributing the lyrics – the songs reek of the band’s hurt romance. It’s an eclectic mix of tunes, but the more memorable songs lie beyond the central duo: Roxanne’s suitor, the despicable Duke De Guiche (an oversized Ben Mendelsohn, rocking a cape like Krennic), gets a strong this-is-my- Evil plan number and the most memorable song is sung by soldiers writing letters home on the eve of a great battle, the fight Wright fought in impressive fashion against the whites of Mount Etna.
Bennett is committed as Roxanne – her performance and Erica Schmidt’s writing style soften the sexist pull of the story, which burdens the character with the double whammy of stupidity and shallowness – and Harrison Jr. does enough with Christian to complicate the love triangle. But that’s Dinklage’s film. While his vocals aren’t the strongest, his limitations add to Cyrano’s vulnerability, and he can convey deep wells of intelligence, anger, longing, and regret with the slightest facial infections. A pensive, proud man paralyzed by doubt, he establishes Wright’s unbound and unimaginative aesthetic, making the final moments surprisingly poignant.
Joe Wright brings fun and fantasy to a oft-told story, though the story beats offer few surprises. Still worth seeing for a convincing Peter Dinklage turn.