Joe Wright’s Cyrano is not the first musical version of the old Rostand chestnut: Wikipedia lists six different musicalizations in the past half-century – including a Broadway production written by Anthony Burgess – amid many dozens of other translations and adaptations. But it’s certainly the poshest, with all the distracting wall-to-wall sparkle and glowing set design any dedicated costume-drama-porn fan could hope for. Posh isn’t necessarily counter to the old play’s topography, set as it was in the aristo-military monde of 17th-century Paris. But what’s interesting, and ultimately moving, about Cyrano – namely the turn by Peter Dinklage – almost gets buried in the Vogue-spread chintz. Wright is an affect-engineer, big on taking on Comp Lit materials but then dehydrating and overdecorating them, as he’s done with Austen, Tolstoy, and J.M. Barrie. Cyrano is unmistakably his – scene per scene, nothing is not prettified.
But of course, the twist in the mix is Dinklage himself and the conversion of Rostand’s classic to the shape of the actor’s body – giant phallic nose out, dwarfism in, substantiating the character’s romantic crisis and his physical barrier to entry, so to speak, in a far more convincing way than Rostand imagined. (Never mind that de Bergerac and his large-ish nose were historically real.) It’s an inspired move, first conceived by Dinklage and his playwright wife, Erica Schmidt, for the stage in 2018, and if Dinklage seems a limited actor, he remains an unusually soulful one. Emmy-winner (for Game of Thrones) that he already is, he’s more than earned what seems inevitable: that Cyrano will make him the first dwarf movie star, ever.
The story is too old to retell in detail: Poet-swordsman Cyrano loves Roxanne (Haley Bennett, Wright’s partner, it’s a movie of couples), but doesn’t dare tell her; Roxanne falls for studly dope Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but only after he gets Cyrano to ghostwrite his love letters for him, and eventually even speak for him undercover, etc. The ruse holds up under duress, sowing confusion – the tragic intrigue further involves a rapey, Roxanne-fixated count (Ben Mendelsohn) and his calling Cyrano and Christian up to war. (And, yes, “swordsman” – at one early point Dinklage defeats six thugs in a belabored swordfight, easily the film’s silliest scene.)
As a tale, it’s both hoary old nonsense and, if you’re prone, a launch of old-school romantic firepower, not to mention an anthem for the beauty-nonconforming of the world, and Schmidt’s screenplay takes the pulp seriously, to its credit. So do the songs, written by members of The National, primarily Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Modern musicals stride or stumble on their songbooks (old musicals, from the mid-century, would often use any song on hand and float by on charm), and so the newer films tend to pile up undistinguished songs in a nervous stockpile. Cyrano is no exception, but out of the 20 or so songs, a few actually burn in the memory, particularly “Wherever I Fall,” a mournful ballad relay sung by multiple homesick soldiers on the war’s front (including Once’s Glen Hansard) as they write letters home.
Despite Wright’s fists of ham, it’s genuinely surprising when whole scenes start to click and get under your skin, and it’s not hard to credit the cast. Dinklage is Dinklage, all haggard visage and basset hound eyes and pleasantly light singing voice, a known quantity compared to Bennett, who is so much peach sherbet, with fewer facial lines than a toddler. So alarmingly, tensely opaque in 2019’s Swallow, she is the unobscure object of this film’s desire, and her bounce and warmth help the improbabilities go down smoothly. (Wright henchman Seamus McGarvey’s overlush cinematography misses no opportunity to make her glow.) One solo song has Bennett’s Roxanne practically masturbating with Christian’s ghosted letters, a potentially cretinous directorial idea that Bennett makes both convincing and adorable.
You could say that the world is made up of two types of people: uncritical, anytime-anywhere musical groupies and those for whom the genre’s studied naivete is difficult, though not impossible, to trust. It says something about the moments of love-and-death commitment in Cyrano that though I’m temperamentally of the latter camp, I remain moved.
Cyrano opens at local theaters on February 24.