Peter Dinklage is a triple threat in this touching and tragic musical romance
The lovely and entrancing new musical Cyrano owes as much to Shakespeare as to its original author Edmond Rostand. The fingerprints of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation Much Ado About Nothing in particular can be found all over Cyrano’s sun-baked Italian setting as well as the playful and poetic cadence of its dialogue and the swooning escapism of its love story.
Around the same time Branagh was shrugging off Shakespeare in favor of more mainstream fare, Joe Wright burst onto the scene with his brooding 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The breathless longing and luminous, swirling cinematography of his debut carried over to his next film, Atonement, and established Wright as one of modern cinema’s most hopeless romantics — emphasis on “hopeless.” So what better canvas for the director than Erica Schmidt’s tender and understated musical adaptation of the tragic 19th century love story Cyrano de Bergerac? Mixing the playful theatricality of Branagh’s Much Ado with the sweet, folk-tinged earnestness of indie cult musical Once, Cyrano is a captivating modern musical with an achingly tender heart.
Cyrano is the latest of what could be dubbed the “pandemic musicals,” which, with the exception of the animated Encanto, have all been dismal commercial failures. This string of disappointments likely accounts for Cyrano’s inauspicious February release date. The fact that it lacks the big-budget Broadway razzle dazzle of an In The Heights or a West Side Story doesn’t help matters, either. You’ll find no splashy dance numbers or belting radio anthems here; the film’s handful of songs, composed by indie rock darlings The National, are simple and sincere and yet no less earwormy than anything penned by Lin Manuel Miranda.
The austerity of the production is precisely what makes Cyrano so much more engrossing than its mainstream contemporaries. Freed from the imperative of spectacle, the film can instead focus on the emotional strength of its story and characters, like the titular Cyrano (Peter Dinklage). A captain in the French Guards whose virtuoso skill as a swordfighter is surpassed only by his beautifully written poetry, Cyrano possesses a lifelong infatuation with childhood friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett). His fear of rejection for his abnormal appearance, however, prevents him from confessing his love. When Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome but inarticulate member of his regiment, also falls for Roxanne, Cyrano agrees to write love letters to her in Christian’s name, kicking off an increasingly fraught love triangle.
The original version of the play famously depicts Cyrano with a comically large nose, an arch sight gag that can be played off with a wink. But the casting of Dinklage lends a more authentic depth to Cyrano’s heartache while adding complexity to his plight. What woman with a functioning brain stem wouldn’t find Peter Dinklage attractive, after all? So there’s an element of Cyrano’s own self-sabotage at work on top of his social ostracism. The actor’s inclusion is no mere stunt casting, however, as Dinklage’s commitment to the role continues to cement him as one of our finest modern performers. The anguish and longing projected by his face (and a pair of the most expressive eyebrows in the business) strike at the heart with more precision than the blade of Cyrano’s rapier.
As if being a terrific actor weren’t enough, the role also gives Dinklage the chance to show off an impressive talent for stunt choreography, as demonstrated by a pair of swordfighting sequences where the actor exerts John Wick-levels of agility. At one point he engages in a spirited fencing match while reciting the 19th century version of a rap diss track.
Dinklage’s physical skill combines with the balletic motion of Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography in a stunning centerpiece action sequence that is a masterclass in creative filmmaking economy. The entire film is visually sumptuous as McGarvey captures the colors and textures of the film’s Sicilian locations, from the buttercream yellows and rose-gold hues of the palazzos where Christian and Cyrano woo Roxanne, to the scorched black and white of a wintery volcanic battlefield late in the film.
In addition to acting and stunts Dinklage holds his own with his share of the film’s songs. But it’s the radiant Bennett as Roxanne who carries off the musical show-stoppers with a clear, rich voice and exuberant performance that commands the screen. Schmidt’s script presents Roxanne as a self-possessed woman with an agenda of her own rather than simply the object of others’ affection, and Bennett balances the character’s romantic whimsy with a shrewd talent for manipulating situations in her favor.
It is unfortunately Christian who is the squeaky wheel on this tricycle built for three. Harrison does the best he can with a character who is little more than a plot device, the story so uninterested in his inner life that he doesn’t even warrant his own song. Meanwhile Ben Mendelsohn is almost unrecognizable as Roxanne’s suitor and villainous nobleman De Guiche, who performs the hell out of the film’s most Broadway-esque I-love-being-evil number.
The casting of Dinklage as well as a colorblind ensemble are both welcome inclusive choices, which is why it’s disappointing that Cyrano is a mostly hetero affair. The film doesn’t shy away from eroticism; a sexually-charged dance sequence in a bakery proves Wright has an appreciation for the male form. Yet any positive depictions of queerness are distinctly absent, which is a noticeable omission for a film in 2022 to make.
For the majority of its two-hour running time, Cyrano soars. Only an abrupt and unnecessarily didactic ending mar an otherwise enchanting romantic fantasy. I was surprised by how much Cyrano burrowed its way under my skin. I found myself humming nearly every song at one point or another in the days following my screening, and I’m already planning a repeat viewing. A small indie musical theatrically released during COVID could not possibly have worse chances of success, but if you feel safe seeking out the film in a theater you can get a head start on Cyrano’s inevitable future status as a cult film.
Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.
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