Too self-conscious to woo Roxanne himself, wordsmith Cyrano de Bergerac helps young Christian nab her heart through love letters.
The tragi-romantic Cyrano de Bergerac is no stranger to the big screen, having been played by Gérard Depardieu and Steve Martin. Joe Wright’s Cyrano is adapted from a stage musical based on Edmond Rostand’s classic play, with music from The National, written by Erica Schmidt.
As in the stage show, Cyrano is again played by Peter Dinklage (husband of screenwriter Erica Schmidt). He’s fully committed to his role as the poetic soldier, perhaps because his performance isn’t hindered by a distracting fake nose. In this modern retelling, its his height and society’s issues with it that cause the insecurity.
Set in 17th-century Paris, but filmed in Sicily, Cyrano often plays like a theatrical show. He’s a hot-headed, daydreaming soldier who’s hopelessly in love with his childhood friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett, Joe Wright’s real-life partner), but too self-conscious to ever admit his feelings. Instead, he watches from a distance, duelling with his enemies and interrupting theatre performances. The less considered about the age gap and technicalities of their friendship the better.
Roxanne is being courted by the wealthy Duc de Guiche (a camp, scenery-chewing Ben Mendelsohn), but has fallen head-over-heels on love with Cyrano’s fellow officer Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). He’s sweet and well-meaning but lacks the romantic vocabulary to impress a high society woman like Roxanne. Cyrano is soon writing eloquently passionate love letters to her, on his behalf, and this well-worn plot feels even more relevant in the modern world of ‘catfishing’ and filtered social media profiles.
Although Cyrano’s nose has been updated, Roxanne hasn’t. She’s seeking love and adoration over fame and fortune, but is still too flighty and shallow for her own good. She knowingly leads on Count de Guice due to his money and access, while her infatuation for Christian is purely love at first sight, with his personality entirely created by Cyrano’s words. This retelling misses out on the chances to give Roxanne a personality aside from being besotted and pretty.
The love quadrangles between Roxanne, Christian, Cyrano, and De Guiche could be farcical but are instead played for tragedy. The real stakes of war are always an echo in the background of the narrative. Beautifully shot on Mount Etna, the lonely coldness of war is starkly shot in contrast to the warmth of earlier scenes.
Written by The National, the songs are pleasant if slightly one dimensional. In a year filled with great musicals like West Side Story (2021) and Encanto (2021), Cyrano is the most conventional. Wright uses all the favourite musical tropes, but they all work well in this sumptuous film. Co-written by Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser, the unfussy lyrics allow the cast to reveal their feelings through the medium of letters. The problem is the songs lack hooks and there are few choruses. Minus a few swooning ballads, the musical numbers here are more ramblings of racing minds than catchy hook-driven tracks. The songs work well in the context of the film but not many people will be rushing to buy the Cyrano soundtrack.
Dinklage unfortunately sounds out of place, too—delivering his songs with a Tom Waits-like rasp. His songs begin with a hint of Hamilton, being half slam poetry, half musical theatre. Bennett and Harrison Jr have the more traditional musical theatre voices which are better suited to this costumed world than the more rock n’ roll Waits-inspired rap. The naturalistic performance of Mendelsohn’s cartoon villain and Dinklage’s rasping sits at odds with Harrison and Bennet’s sweetly lyrical take on the music.
Cyrano does its big musical scenes well. “Someone to Say”, an early song-staple in the film, sits on a pleasing line between rock and opera, belted earnestly by Bennett. The heart-breaking later number “Wherever I Fall” sees various soldiers (including Once’s Glen Hansard) sing the contents of their final letters home, and it stands out in particular. Wright and Schmidt manage to balance the intimate heartbreak with the flamboyant romance of the situation.
The choreography is subtle and understated, a smart decision in contrast to the big sweeping songs and fairy tale cinematography. Soldiers fight and their swordplay is timed to the music, while peasants sway through carriage windows. Wright knows when to hold back and when to go bold, never making Cyrano bigger and brasher than it needs to be.
Wright also knows how to handle big period pieces, having directed Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2021). Cyrano is visually sumptuous, sitting in an uncanny world between historical and theatrical, the sets all looking slightly staged and unnatural. For a story that’s been told time and time again, Wright finds a way to devise an original, cinematic staging of a classic tale. His cameras are always moving through the world created by long-time production designer Sarah Greenwood, the look enhanced by Massimo Cantini Parrini’s operatic costuming and stunning cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. It’s a feast for the eyes, no matter your taste in music.
Dinklage proves himself to be a worthy leading man, saying a lot with just his facial expressions. Although his Cyrano shares little in common with his famous Game of Thrones character, Tyrion Lannister, it’s a heartfelt and moving performance. Bennett is also captivating as the girlish Roxanne, swooning through her romance in big gowns with bigger dreams. Harrison is severely underused, however, with his soulful voice often drowned out amongst the ensemble. Christian is also a two-dimensional type of character, sweet but lacking any personality aside from being humorously bad with words. Essentially, everybody but Cyrano are beautiful characterless cut-outs with great voices.
This isn’t a perfect musical, but it’s hard not to fall in love with the sheer grandeur. Much like Baz Luhrmann, Wright toes the line between Shakespearian tragedy and a modern music video sensibility too. With charming performances and sumptuous design, Cyrano is a film best enjoyed on a big screen. Every inch of every shot demands your attention, helped with Dinklage quiet yet powerful performance.
UK • CANADA • USA | 2021 | 124 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Joe Wright.
writer: Erica Schmidt (based on the stage play ‘Cyrano’ by Eric Schmidt, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger & Carin Besser; adapting the play ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ by Edmond Rostand.)
starring: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn, Bashir Salahuddin & Monica Dolan.