Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 16th, 2021
Cyrano (Joe Wright, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Hardly an unknown—nor unadapted—work, dramatist Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac is perhaps one of the best-known French-language plays of the last 100-plus years, widely translated and staged. For movie fans, one can choose from classic takes such as the 1950 version starring José Ferrer, the 1959 Japanese Samurai Saga starring Toshiro Mifune, or the 1990 French iteration with Gérard Depardieu in the lead, among others. If you want something a little more playful, try Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne. There are many more where those came from, so take your pick.
Now we have a musical variant, entitled simply Cyrano, from director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour), which proves every bit as lively as the source material and just as inventive in its visual wit as the title character is meant to be with that of his tongue, pen and sword. It’s also an adaptation of an adaptation: the 2018 stage musical by Erica Schmidt (with songs by The National). Though not all numbers within give equal pleasure, the overall takeaway is joyous.
In the original story, based on the life of the actual, 17th-century Cyrano de Bergerac, the protagonist is a cadet (or nobleman soldier), serving in the French army, known for his skills as a swordsman and poet. Unfortunately for him, he has a large proboscis in place of a regular nose, making him ugly to most (and better not mention the offending appendage in his presence!). Deeply in love with his cousin (many times removed) Roxane, he despairs of ever getting her to love him back, though she does show him much affection and appreciates his charm, intelligence, and (as repeated many times in the play) … panache. Sadly, she pines for a new cadet named Christian, who is as dull as he is handsome. Heartbroken, Cyrano secretly agrees to write letters that Christian can pretend are his own. Does this sound like something you’ve seen before? That’s because the device has been used a lot since Rostand first staged his play.
In the new Cyrano, our hero is played by Peter Dinklage (I Care a Lot), an actor with dwarfism (and the husband of Schmidt, and star of the 2018 stage play), which becomes his obstacle to winning Roxanne’s love here, rather than any large nose. [A quick note here on the spelling of Roxanne: in the French play, it has one “n,” but in Wright’s movie, as in Martin’s, it has two.] He is otherwise the same as Rostand envisioned him, as quick with an épée as with a verbal barb; early on, we see him dispatch foes with both.
Dinklage is wonderful (as he always is) in the role, full of brash confidence and, yes, panache. He also has quite a fine singing voice. As do Haley Bennett (Thank You for Your Service), as Roxane, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (The High Note), as Christian. Unless one has never heard of or seen any version of this story before, no elements of the plot will surprise. Still, watching and listening to Wright’s melodious mise-en-scène is a lot of fun. Ben Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel), as the villainous Count de Guiche, brings additional quality to the mix.
The songs may not all ring triumphant, but many do and the choreography usually stuns even when the music doesn’t. I was a particular fan of Bennett’s power ballad “I Need More” and quieter “Every Letter” (actually, every time Bennett—the director’s real-life romantic partner—sings is pretty much amazing). Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Greta) photographs the scenes in gorgeous, vivid color, allowing the work of Wright’s regular Production Designer, Sarah Greenwood, to shine throughout. Despite all this glorious artistry on display, we never forget the inherent sadness of the story, which moves inexorably towards its tragic, bittersweet conclusion. There may be much that is familiar, but with this version Wright nevertheless manages to be both reverent and innovative, with more than a dash of … panache.