Joe Wright’s newest interprets the classic tale as a musical with uneven results.
The modern era of musicals moves fits and spurts. Over this young century, the form has repeatedly fallen in and out of fashion. 2021 was an on year—one pulsing full of musicals, which ranged from towering works like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake to the dreaded and thoroughly mocked Dear Evan Hansen. Many of them were quite experimental too, like Leos Carax and Sparks’ Annette and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tick, tick…BOOM!. But even against that august competition, Joe Wright’s Cyrano carves out a place as one of the most imaginative musicals of this modern era. Although The National’s newly-composed songs don’t immediately gel with the iconic story being told, Cyrano makes its way towards a moving, complex finale, thanks to a stellar set of performances.
Edmond Rostand’s Cyrando de Bergerac has been adapted and reimagined literally dozens of times since the classic play about tragedies born from misunderstandings in love first premiered in 1897. However, this rendition of Cyrano, with screenplay adapted by Erica Schmidt from her own stage version, has a unique twist—one besides its singing and dancing. Instead of donning the exaggerated long nose almost always associated with Cyrano, Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) plays the titular role without prosthetics and lets his dwarfism take center stage. It’s a brave, bold choice on Dinklage’s part, and it pays off in spades. His handsome, expressive face communicates with the audience free of clunky character makeup. During scenes with his beloved Roxanne, played by a sparkling Haley Bennett (Music and Lyrics, Swallow), Wright holds Dinklage in arresting closeups that reveal the minute, trembling movements of the muscles around his eyes and mouth.
Certain scenes leave more to be desired in the way of romantic chemistry between Dinklage and Bennett, but both actors bring great warmth to their roles. Bennett attacks each of Roxanne’s scenes with aplomb, whether she’s comically crawling around on all fours looking for a shoe, floating serenely through a nunnery, or all but making love to one of Cyrano’s letters as she writhes over it in bed. Kelvin Harrison (It Comes at Night) more than holds his own as the third member of the doomed love triangle, a naïve soldier named Christian, who serves as the unwitting go-between for Cyrano and Roxanne. Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, a frequent collaborator, make interesting visual choices in the third act, choices that symbolically highlight just how thoroughly used Christian is by Cyrano.
Indeed, one of Wright’s strong suits as a director is picking up on unique elements of the historical settings of period pieces, and highlighting them to great effect. Just as the Bennet sisters of Wright’s romantic Pride and Prejudice stomped through muddy farmyards and down bleak rural roads, the nobility of Cyrano live in luxury that’s only luxurious by the standards of the mid-1600s. The story’s villain, the lecherous Duke de Guiche (played with campy menace by It Bad Guy Ben Mendelsohn), is the most wealthy and powerful character we meet, and even he lives amongst piles of dust and debris in a mansion made from crumbling carved plaster.
Art director Clara Gomez del Moral (Rebecca) and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini (Tale of Tales), working in concert with an inspired makeup team, lean into this idea beautifully. The grotesque, shallow cruelty of the ruling class is depicted through gaudy finery and white makeup that cracks and flakes just like the plaster in the Duke’s home. When Roxanne and Christian first lock eyes in a crowd, they’re at a pantomime where the performers are hidden behind eerie sheep masks, underscoring the authenticity of their instant connection in a world of fragile, sickening artificiality. With that said, Cyrano’s settings aren’t always used as effectively as they could be—an extended conversation between Cyrano and his military comrade Captain le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin, South Side) outside a tavern feels like an unmotivated wander through a closed furniture store—but the time period is richly mined in the film’s third act, when Cyrano and Christian are sent to fight in the Thirty Years’ War by the vengeful de Giche. The chilly, bleak moments set in dug-out foxholes are some of the most memorable in the entire movie.
Cyrano’s breakneck tonal swings between winking jokes and grim violence make the skirmishes feel as inconsequential as Looney Tunes.
Audience members might be confused about exactly what conflict the characters are engaged in, however. The details of who is fighting what, where, and why, are fuzzy at best. This wouldn’t be such a stumbling block—after all, the crux of the story is the miscommunicated love between Cyrano and Roxanne, not French politics of the 1640s—but unfortunately, many other plot details are obscured by rushed dialogue and cluttered sound design. Schmidt seems to have strong ideas about who exactly these versions of the characters are, but the story often veers away from exploring the dynamics between Cyrano and Roxanne or Cyrano and Christian, despite these relationships serving as its very backbone. Just when it seems like a difficult and nuanced conversation between two of the leads might take place, Cyrano whisks away to another showy set piece—a highly choreographed sword fight, for instance. Cyrano the character has always been a swashbuckler, as adept with a weapon as he is with his pen, but Cyrano’s breakneck tonal swings between winking jokes and grim violence make the skirmishes feel as inconsequential as Looney Tunes.
One of the benefits of telling a story as a musical is that the creative team can use the songs to explore the characters’ interiorities and further the audience’s understanding of who they are. Unfortunately, Cyrano dones not incorporate its songs—by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of indie band The National—gracefully. Fans of both the band and the classic play may be disappointed by the simplistic lyrics of most of the first half’s songs—think painfully obvious rhyming couplets like “name it” and “claim it.”
More frustratingly, the songs’ arrangements are uninspired, and fail to add dimension to the story. When Roxanne’s first solo number “Someone to Say” is split among members of the crowd at the play she’s attending, it feels like a random attempt to give non-leads a chance to sing, rather than a commentary on the universality of her longing for true love. One song begins with Christian failing to complete phrases and Cyrano singing their ends for him—a clever idea, given that the entire story turns on Cyrano speaking for and through Christian. But disappointingly, the idea is dropped in mere moments, and the rest of the song plays out as yet another romantic solo ballad.
Cyrano’s songs are further handicapped by clumsy sound design and boring choreography. If a song takes place in a bakery, extras circle around with loaves of bread. If a song takes place at a soldiers’ barracks, extras circle around with swords. The swooshing of capes and clatter of blades is dialed up to twelve here, a distracting choice that makes the purpose of each song even harder to parse.
Despite the first act’s clunkiness, as the film progresses, it grows more comfortable with stepping into itself as a musical. Bennett’s impassioned performance of Roxanne’s “I Want More” gives a much-needed shot of emotional clarity and energy to the story, and Mendelsohn delightfully gobbles up the scenery with a bad guy number that would have been right at home in Moulin Rouge!. The movie’s single best song comes near the very end, when three soldiers played by indie musicians including Once’s Glen Hasard sing a tightly-harmonized tune that serves as a message to their families in the face of their certain deaths. That song felt reminiscent of “Once We Were Kings” from the excellent Billy Elliot musical, or something from Come from Away, and much more in the Dessners’ songwriting wheelhouse than character-driven ballads or the moment when, uncomfortably, Cyrano raps while dueling.
With significant connective tissue missing from the dialogue and songs that often don’t feel as fully developed as they could be, it’s impossible to imagine this film working at all without Dinklage, Bennett, Harrison and company’s emotionally powerful performances. As Cyrano stands, their delicate and sensitive work brings all the picture’s disparate pieces together into a surprisingly beautiful whole, especially when taken in concert with Wright’s thoughtfully and creatively chosen historical settings. In the film’s closing moments, when the flurry of extras and set pieces have given way to an empty room, a single bench, and our lead lovers, Dinklage takes up Cyrano’s last letter, and the famous poet’s words finally sing.
Cyrano speaks the words of love in theatres everywhere on January 21, 2022.