It’s a tale as old as time: someone loves someone who loves someone else entirely. That special type of pain and longing was forever immortalized in Edmond Rostand’s play “Cyrano de Bergerac” back in the 19th century. It’s an old yarn Hollywood has retold and remixed in various years over its history. Joe Wright’s adaptation “Cyrano,” which had its premiere on the opening night of the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, is the latest stab at the story, but it’s one that arrives with a decidedly mixed result. The movie’s highs are enjoyable and riveting, they’re reason why the character has endured for decades.
But the lows – they hurt even worse. There’s a sense of what the “Cyrano” might have been with a different creative direction, and the path not taken haunts the movie’s lowest points.
In case you missed this day in literature class, Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a wordsmith nursing quite the crush for his longtime friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). She, on the other hand, has fallen in love with a dashing young soldier, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The affection is returned, but there’s just one issue. Roxanne wants to wooed and receive glowing letters about how much he loves her. Unfortunately, Christian lacks the skill, and Cyrano, not wanting to let the love of his life get crushed by another man’s shortcomings, steps in to write the requested love letters. Another suitor, a duke (Ben Mendelsohn, almost unrecognizable in thick makeup for the role) escalates his intents to marry Roxanne, who is stuck enduring his advances to save her reputation while juggling real matters of her heart.
In this version of “Cyrano,” its namesake character ditches the usual cartoonishly long nose and instead lets Dinklage’s Cyrano fight other men who underestimate him or mock him for his height. No sooner does Cyrano make his memorable appearance chasing a terrible actor off the stage, than does some dressed-up member of the upper class insult him by calling him a freak. No matter, this Cyrano comes with a sword, fighting skills and, of course, an even sharper tongue, ready to defend himself even as he’s still dealing with his own insecurities about being worthy of love.
It is a bit strange to see Wright struggle with an adaptation after delivering some of the most popular movies based on books in the 21st century like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement.” Even his version of “Anna Karenina” has its share of defenders. Perhaps that’s the fate that awaits “Cyrano” — not to be universally loved, but perhaps to find its share of fans who like its musical style and fantastical segments.
Wright’s previous adaptations were sensuous affairs, rich in details, costumes and candlelight. Some of his favorite things also make it into “Cyrano,” with one exception. It’s not that romance is missing from the movie – after all, this is still a love story – but Erica Schmidt’s script and the songs from the team of Bryce Dessner and Aaron Dessner (The National) manage to interrupt the characters’ feelings for ill-timed and rather forgettable interludes. There’s a cheesy rock song intended for the villain and a heavy piano ballad to capture Cyrano’s hidden emotions, but just hours after the screening, I’m struggling to remember any lyrics or even a refrain. Whenever it feels like the narrative is taking off, it’s pulled off to the side for one song, and then another. Yes, it’s a musical, adapted from Schmidt’s 2018 off-Broadway production, but it shouldn’t be this dull or clunky.
Although he’s not the cast’s strongest singing voice, Dinklage’s acting is much more enjoyable. He brings a profound sense of passion and rejection to convey Cyrano’s inner turmoil on the screen. He relishes selling the difficulty of action sequences, bringing a ferocious energy and and a balletic quality to some of the fight choreography. It’s a performance that works well with Wright’s inclusion of contemporary dancers. Dinklage’s heartbroken expression when Bennett’s Roxanne tells Cyrano that she’s in love with someone else is quite the acting feat. As he tenses his face, his eyes begin to well up with tears, but instead of blinking and letting them run, he stays frozen, holding his shattered expression in every muscle.
As the movie’s lead, Dinklage has many chances to use his comic timing and dry witty delivery. As for Roxanne, Bennett brings the right amount of lovestruck naivete to match Cyrano’s tortured soul. She’s a bright ray of energy to counterbalance Dinklage’s performance, and she’s also given the chance to mature and figure things out for herself, especially when it comes to the duke’s untoward attention.
It’s admirable that Wright, Schmidt, Dinklage, Bennett and the rest of the crew and crew aimed so ambitiously high in their attempt to create a version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” that’s unlike any other adaptation in the way it ditches the nose and adds musical numbers (though it’s worth pointing out that previous musical adaptations made their way to Broadway in 1973 and 1993). While it doesn’t come together seamlessly, there are wonderful moments between Dinklage and Bennett, even Harrison Jr. and Mendelsohn have their moments to shine. Perhaps it’s why this version of “Cyrano” felt so bittersweet, leaving the audience with a sense of what might have been.