Cyrano is in exclusive Los Angeles theaters on Dec. 17 and in select theaters across the U.S. Jan. 21.
There’s a reason Edmond Rostand’s drama Cyrano de Bergerac remains so relevant more than 100 years after its first telling. Watching an underdog with an ungainly physical appearance manage to outwit and outcharm his peers, and then enamour the woman of his dreams is inherently a good time. Now, director Joe Wright has given the oft-told tale an injection of fresh creativity by adapting the 2019 stage musical by Erica Schmidt to screen starring Peter Dinklage as Cyrano. Unfortunately, though, despite some strong performances, this adaptation doesn’t work as well as hoped.
Following the same arc of Rostand’s original story, Wright and Schmidt only make slight adjustments to its bones, such as changing Cyrano’s “affliction” of possessing a garishly large nose to what he self-describes as being a “midget.” Despite his brilliance with language and strategy, his short stature feeds his crippling self-doubt in one area, which is ever wooing his distant cousin, best friend, and love of his life, Roxanne (Haley Bennett).
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And if we’re going to be honest, Roxanne is inherently a problematic female character. While her station in life and in time make her a commodity to the whims of man, there is an admirable quality to her wanting to be more than just arm candy and tied to someone who she can love. But the machinations of the story often reduce her to the shallow end of the pool when it comes to her life choices. In this adaptation, she’s portrayed as flighty and gorgeous, led entirely by her overdramatic heart. She knowingly allows herself to be courted by a fop like Count De Guiche (an appropriately unctious Ben Mendelsohn) because of his money and access, when she has no intention of accepting his imminent proposal.
And then she falls into a case of love at first sight with a mere glance at young soldier, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and then uses Cyrano’s clear affection for her to get him to orchestrate a meeting for them to meet. And he’s so besotted by her, that he then helps feed Christian, who possesses no wit or sweet language to woo, the words that will make Roxanne fall even more madly in love with the handsome fibber of her dreams. Even if you don’t know the specifics of where the story goes, it’s safe to tease that the ruse only gets more complicated as a love quadrangle forms involving Roxanne, Christian, Cyrano, and De Guiche that is often played as a straight-up farce. But Cyrano leans into the real stakes as war quickly encroaches on their reality and the three men are forced to leave Roxanne behind as their very lives are on the line.
Perhaps letting the story lean into the tragic rather than the comedic is where this adaptation of Cyrano trips itself up. If Wright has an Achilies’ heel in his direction of period pieces, it’s his proclivity to embrace the staginess of theater and translate that with fealty directly to the screen, which can be wince-inducing. He loves using all the musical tropes, like staging dancing peasants outside a carriage or having soldier-training exercises choreographed like dance numbers. Depending on the viewer, that’s either going to pull you in, or knock you out of the moment, and it was in the latter camp for me. Characters just break into song and then don’t anymore, and how effectively that works is entirely based on the prowess of the singers. Bennett and Harrison Jr. acquit themselves well on that front, both possessing incredible voices that beguile. Dinklage and Mendelsohn have halting voices, so they make due with more naturalistic approaches, which work for their characters but don’t make for great listens.
However, the film and the entire cast, especially Dinklage, all excel when acting is all that is asked of them. Cyrano often finds its groove when it doesn’t break into song, and the scenes between the actors are just about the text and the depth of emotion they are sharing with one another. And that’s pretty telling, because musicals are supposed to use song as the conduit to the most truthful representation of what the characters are experiencing. The songs don’t do that well here in their lyrics or execution. The format even lessens the iconic sequence in the first act when Cyrano dresses down the pompous actor, Montfleury, and then duels the prig, Valvert. Wright and Schmidt turn Cyrano’s legendary putdowns into a rap, which isn’t easy to follow, and ends up being entirely one-sided, which diminishes the joy of discovering in the moment how smart, quick, and lively a character Cyrano truly is.
The film does pick up steam in figuring out how to balance the story with the songs by the third act and hits a genuine home run with the heart-wrenching, soldier’s goodbye song “Where I Fall.” Sung before a doomed battle, it is both intimate and genuine in a way that feels deeply authentic to the moment in the film and the emotions that it’s meant to be capturing and reflecting. It’s also where Harrison Jr. really makes his portrayal of Christian something special, reframing the man often just seen as an empty-headed himbo into a truly heroic character that makes his fate something to really care about in equal measure to Cyrano’s.
Aesthetically, if you admire any of Wright’s previous films, then you’re aware the man knows how to stage and shoot the hell out of a richly appointed period piece. His adaptations of Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012) are visually sumptuous, and Cyrano follows in their footsteps. And as he and long-time production designer Sarah Greenwood did with those two films, they ground the loftier elements of Cyrano’s world and story with the grunginess of reality, from the muck women step through in their gorgeous gowns on the city streets to the gory truths of warfare on a battlefield. And his cameras are always moving, which makes for an engaging watch no matter if the songs or their staging aren’t always hitting the mark. Plus, the costuming by Massimo Cantini Parrini is to die for, and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey knows how to shoot them and the environments framing them to best effect, be it a well-appointed parlor or a stark, white and gray landscape on the cusp of warfare.
In the end, Cyrano works well when the actors are able to be in the moment, mostly without the artifice of the musical numbers. Some hit well enough, but the scenes that stay with you are mostly the ones with just the actors, talking to one another and doing what they do best with just the music of their own talents guiding them.