Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
Stars: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Writer: Erica Schmidt (From the play by Edmond Rostand)
Director: Joe Wright
What is it about Cyrano de Bergerac? From the start, this 1897 French play about a disfigured man hopelessly in love with a beautiful woman has inspired filmmakers to build wildly creative, startlingly ambitious screen variations on Edmond Rostand’s unrepentantly romantic framework.
In 1900, the stage’s original Cyrano, actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin, starred in a two-minute film of the play’s duel scene — in color and with a revolutionary synchronized soundtrack. A sparkling full-length 1925 version utilized an innovative color process that required a single artist to create a hand-cut stencil for each and every frame. And in 1938, James Mason starred in a live television production at a time when there were not many more TVs in the country than there were actors in the show.
Now comes director Joe Wright (Atonement) and star Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) with a meticulously crafted, unexpectedly tuneful take on the classic story; one that takes in-your-face liberties while remaining utterly faithful to the original.
It is 17th century Paris, and Cyrano, an educated nobleman/poet serving in the French army, is a beloved member of the city’s cultural elite. He’s also a scathing critic, as evidenced in his first appearance, heaping cruel insults on a journeyman actor trying to put on a play in a raucous theater.
Despite his prickly exterior, Cyrano has an incurable soft spot for the lovely Roxanne, played with fetching obliviousness by Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train). Cyrano certainly has the words, the money, the influence to win the woman of his dreams. But despite his undeniable panache — a term that, incidentally, Cyrano the play introduced to the English language — our hero’s all-consuming state of romantic futility is fueled by his diminutive physical stature. Surely, he tells his close friend Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Roxanne would never shower her affections on a man so short.
And it is here that this new Cyrano carves a new dimension for the century-old story. In the original play and every screen iteration since, Cyrano’s inferiority complex arose from his sizable nose. From Oscar winner José Ferrer to Steve Martin (in his memorable 1987 adaptation, Roxanne), Cyrano has been defined by that prodigious proboscis — and like the character they played, each actor had to gently guide the audience beyond that obviously prop nose to grasp the man behind it.
In contrast, Dinklage comes to the role fully, naturally inhabiting Cyrano’s perceived deficiency. His Cyrano swoops onto the screen — literally — carrying his 4-foot-4 frame with all the swagger of an NFL linebacker coming out of the huddle. He brawls, he insults, he fences, he takes out a mob of hulking assassins — all within the first 20 minutes or so of the film.
Indeed, Dinklage is so unflappably comfortable and dashing in his own skin for a moment there I was wondering if maybe he should be the next 007. And when he finally drops the curtain just long enough to offer a glimpse of Cyrano’s vulnerability, that the moment of revelation is positively shocking.
Cyrano’s method of coping with his unrequited love is the stuff of literary legend: When he learns his dashing but tongue-tied friend Christian is also smitten with Roxanne, he offers to ghost write a series of love letters, with which Christian wins her heart. The ensuing complications are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, and as an actor Dinklage deftly tugs us in each direction. His deadpan comic delivery is as dry as fine champagne — and with a clench of the jaw and a twitch of the eye he communicates the implosion of a crushed soul like nobody’s business.
While Cyrano is a musical, it’s not being marketed as such — and I suppose that is a good thing, as the songs seem at times defiantly non-memorable. The songs, by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the indie rock band The National, are essentially tone poems, meant to capture the spirit of the film’s rhythms more than advance the plot. Dinklage’s natural bass tones lend themselves nicely to the score, and Bennett, certainly the more accomplished singer of the pair, elevates the material nicely.
With handsome production design from six-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood and pristine photography from two-time Oscar nominee Seamus McGarvey (both worked with director Wright on Atonement and Anna Karenina), Cyrano is staying put in theaters for now.
That’s a financial gamble but a smart artistic move for a film that is best seen on the biggest screen possible for its many charms, both large and small.
Featured image: Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage in Cyrano (Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
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