Joe Wright and Peter Dinklage’s enthusiastic rendition of a classic story is slightly out of tune
Swap that alarming proboscis for height deficiency, add some heady-fizzy-numb song-and-dance numbers, and you get the gist of Cyrano, the latest movie adaptation of the canonical French play Cyrano de Bergerac. Edmond Rostand’s 1897 masterpiece is one of the ur-texts for the modern romance—the swooning obsessions, the hidden identity, the unrequited lover’s self-pity and deep yearning for unattainable happiness. Yet Joe Wright’s busy production seems both cluttered and airy, an enthusiastic rendering that somehow feels lightweight.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
CYRANO ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Erica Schmidt
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn
Running time: 124 mins
The story remains the same: sword-worthy cadet and clever wordsmith Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) pines for distant cuz and status-hungry knockout Roxanne (Haley Bennett). She’s crushing on handsome but verbally maladroit soldier Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who comes to Cyrano for help. Cyrano reluctantly obliges. “My words, on your lips,” he says, ghost-writing Christian’s love letters and famously even stage-whispering lines to him as he courts a balcony-perched Roxanne. “My fate is to love her from afar,” Cyrano moans.
It’s an irresistible premise with a narrative foundation that’s almost mythic in its profound simplicity. But the sturdy material doesn’t automatically guarantee memorable productions. Despite Dinklage’s own celebrated gravitas—that hurt pout and perpetually furrowed brow are perfect for the infamously brooding warrior-poet—his dwarfism does feel like stunt casting. Although you could say the same about the star of 1990’s acclaimed French film version, boasting Gérard Depardieu and his naturally bulbous honker as the titular lonelyheart. That exquisite production, though, leaned on the original text, and even enlisted Anthony Burgess to ensure the English-language subtitles reflected its linguistic Gallic sparkle. This new Cyrano has a script by Dinklage’s wife Erica Schmidt, who wrote it expressly for him—a touching romantic gesture, but one that trades deft wit for swoony bursts of song.
The National wrote all the film’s music, and the cast, including non-professional singers like Dinklage, are game to croon. But that initial charm fades quickly, leaving the audience with so-so lyrics and meh melodies that dissipate from scene to scene. Exacerbating the ephemerality is the film’s strange lack of geo-political specificity. These are soldiers on an island output in vaguely 18th century garb. But in what country? And what era? The film’s sun-kissed Baroque architecture is jaw-droppingly beautiful, yet played as generic. English-speaking characters with French names trouncing through streets that feel like Seville or Florence but are actually the unidentified Sicilian city of Noto. And when the soldiers go to war, there’s no indication of who they fight or why. It’s a missed opportunity that makes the material unnecessarily hermetic.
Still, this musical Cyrano is a swing-for-the-fences expression of the play’s inherent l’amour fou, a full-throated coup de folie from Joe Wright. The expressionistic British director has a proudly eccentric filmography, from purple prestige pictures like Atonement, Anna Karenina, and Darkest Hour to hysterical misfires like Pan and The Woman in the Window. One uncategorizable standout is Hanna, one of the weirdest and most thrillingly cinematic spy flicks I’ve seen in recent years. Wright is uniquely fearless, with a penchant for putting a modern spin on classic literature. He’s also got a flair for the extravagant, and a soft spot for earnest emotions. It’d be foolish to penalize such volatile talent for not being conventional.