‘Cyrano’ Review: Everything, Yet Naught

Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostrand’s 1897 French-language stage romance loosely based on a real-life warrior poet, has been adapted by Hollywood a number of times. Direct adaptations of the play have mostly been reserved for the French themselves, whose 1990 version starring Gérard Depardeiu is the gold standard. The rest of the world tends to put some sort of spin on the concept, setting it in the modern day, swapping the genders or sexualities of the characters, or all of the above. By comparison, Cyrano, which hits theaters this weekend, is pretty much by the numbers, retaining the setting and structure of the original text while adding two twists of its own. For one, the title character is portrayed by four-time Emmy winner Peter Dinklage, who instead of donning Cyrano’s signature giant nose leverages his achondroplasia to similar effect. For another, this Cyrano is a musical, with songs composed by members of the indie rock band The National. Originally adapted for the stage in 2018 by theater director/playwright Erica Schmidt, Cyrano is now brought to life on the big screen by director Joe Wright. For his part, Dinklage is dynamite, but the adaptation as a whole is hit and miss. 

Dual Identity

Cyrano de Bergerac (Dinklage) is a Captain in the French Army during the French-Spanish War of the mid-17th century. He commands a guard regiment, and his skill as a warrior and as a poet have made him famous amongst his city’s upper crust. Cyrano is utterly fearless, except in one respect: He doesn’t dare confess his love to his lifelong friend, the clever and beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett, Hillbilly Elegy). Roxanne has her own worries, as her family’s fortune is all but exhausted and she is being pressured into marrying the monied but slimy de Guiche (Ben Mendolsohn, playing a high-status villain as usual). Roxanne wants to marry for love, and she believes she’s found it when she catches sight of a handsome young guard, Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., The Trial of the Chicago 7). Christian is likewise infatuated, but Roxanne is a sophisticated lady and Christian has no game whatsoever. In the hope of playing a part in Roxanne’s happiness, Cyrano agrees to secretly ghostwrite Christian’s love letters. The scheme works and Roxanne falls hard for the combination of Christian’s looks and Cyrano’s wit, but how long can the charade last? And, oh yeah, remember how the country’s at war?

Cyrano is an abbreviated but otherwise faithful adaptation of the original play, contemporizing some (but not all) of the dialogue and changing the nature of the title character’s cosmetic disadvantage from a long nose to a short stature. Cyrano’s famously verbose monologues have been severely truncated and the pace of the story generally quickened, but the expected beats are all there. This streamlined approach was criticized back when Schmidt’s stage musical came to New York in 2019, but as someone who hasn’t seen or read the original play in about fifteen years, I can’t claim to have been very bothered by the changes, when I noticed them. (Decimating Cyrano’s famous “No, Thank You” monologue is a bit of a drag, but I can always revisit the unhinged, three and a half minute William Shatner rendition.) While the film cuts Roxanne from the Spanish War section of the story, she remains the greatest beneficiary of Schmidt’s adaptation, examining her precarious status as a single woman in 17th century France from a more contemporary perspective. 

There’s one challenge to adapting Cyrano de Bergerac that would be difficult for any faithful take on the story to avoid — Cyrano begins with an abundance of whimsy, but by the end of the film, “fun” is a distant memory. The opening act has a refreshing disregard for realism, heightened and wordy like a stage play. Roxanne begins singing the film’s opening number as a soliloquy, with de Guiche sitting right beside her, unaware. The songs of the second act are performed in private, but directed with music video excess, quick cuts and sudden changes in costume or scenery to emphasize the subjective interiority of what’s happening on screen. Once the war rears its head, this poetic flair is totally lost. Aside from ignoring that some characters sing to each other rather than speak, we are trapped in a world of harsh literalism. This decaying of vibrance and joy is certainly a deliberate choice on the part of the director, as modern audiences need a detachment from reality to accept something like “love at first sight” but not for “war and misery.” Unfortunately this means that, unlike the Cyrano of the play, the film ends without its panache.

Cyrano

Match of the Year 1655

I’ll tell you who I didn’t expect to be thinking of at any point while watching Cyrano — John Cena. But as Peter Dinklage makes his dramatic entrance in one of the film’s opening scenes, interrupting a rotten actor’s live performance and taking him apart with rhyming insults as he saunters down the ramp towards the stage, I couldn’t help but recall the 16-time WWE Champion’s early days as “the Professor of Thuganomics.” I promise you, this is a compliment. Dinklage takes what could be a cringey introduction, essentially challenging someone to a rap battle for the integrity of the theater, and injects it with such confidence that its dorkiness becomes cool. His character plays to the house, winning over a working class crowd who, moments ago, was cheering for his adversary. And when some fancypants heel challenges him to a duel on stage, Cyrano squashes him. The Champ is Here.™️

Dinklage is in absolute movie star mode throughout this entire picture. As Cyrano, he cycles seamlessly between roguish, romantic, mournful, cheeky, and demure. He is engaging as a romantic lead, as a buddy to Christian, and as an action hero in his two sword fights early in the film. His take on Cyrano might almost be too cool, as to make the idea that Roxanne isn’t attracted to him seem ludicrous. But, of course, that’s always been baked into Cyrano de Bergerac — it’s not that Roxanne can’t be into him, it’s that he’s unwilling to gamble his pride to find out, or to submit himself to society’s ridicule for the attempt. The film acknowledges but does not emphasize the social stigma around Cyrano’s dwarfism, which is referenced directly only by the nastiest characters. I have no doubt that there would be scandal around Cyrano and Roxanne getting together, but the film suggests that Cyrano, more than anyone else, is in his own way.

Director Joe Wright surrounds Dinklage with a capable ensemble, beginning with Haley Bennett as Roxanne. Apart from her improbable “thunderbolt” moment in which she falls in love with a man from across a crowded street, Roxanne is no fool. Like Cyrano, she values wit, craves independence, and is unwilling to compromise herself for wealth or station. Roxanne reads as young (Bennett is 34) but not naive, and the viewer is left wondering on more than one occasion as to whether or not she is onto Cyrano and Christian’s ruse. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is instantly likable as Christian, foolish and lovesick but never over the top. It’d be easy to play Christian as stupid, but he’s not, he just expresses himself like a normal guy instead of like a character in a play, which is the level of eloquence that Cyrano possesses and that Roxanne expects. Ben Mendolsohn is an old hand at playing the shitty rich dude and steals his scenes without sweating through his pancake and rouge.

Cyrano

National Anthems

Most film adaptations of stage musicals suffer from casting bankable movie stars to perform roles that are beyond their musical talents. Cyrano has the opposite problem, in that its stars are capable of performing the music because the songs are not particularly ambitious or demanding. Peter Dinklage, a low baritone, could not ask for a better composer to work with than the Dessner brothers, who are accustomed to writing for The National vocalist Matt Berninger. Dinklage has a similar vocal quality, a low Nick Cave rumble that’s not suited for typical Broadway fare but feels natural for the film’s orchestrated indie rock. They don’t give him any more than he can handle, but this means his songs have a limited melodic range. Almost every song in the film has this problem — in fact, most of the songs don’t feature Dinklage at all and seem similarly restrained. Haley Bennett, who was also in the original stage cast, gets a little more room to stretch out in her solo number “I Need More,” but no one else does. It’s telling that the film’s best song, the war ballad “Wherever I Fall,” doesn’t feature any of the main cast at all. Its first verse is sung by Glen Hansard (of Once fame), who gives the film’s best vocal performance by a mile, and the other two by fellow singer-songwriters Sam Amidon and Scott Folan, all ringers who are featured only in this scene. 

The lyrics for the Cyrano soundtrack, written by The National’s Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, are similarly disappointing. In a story that is, in part, about the evocative power of poetry, the characters sing their thoughts and feelings in surprisingly literal terms. Except when Cyrano’s portion of a song is actually an excerpt from his letters, no one’s shared or internal musical thoughts are as flowery or eloquent as what the language that they use in dialogue. This, more than the actors’ unremarkable singing, has me wondering if Cyrano might’ve been better off not being a musical at all. If the songs aren’t offering us a closer or deeper look at the characters’ hearts, then they’re not much good to us. 

Happily, Joe Wright’s direction picks up some of the slack here. The songs that occur before the wartime turn into realism are all accompanied by something exciting  to look at, be it a fencing drill-turned-ballet sequence or a sexually-charged montage of letter-writing and rapturous letter-reading. (Let no one say that this particular studio picture isn’t horny enough! This film also includes an erotic bread-making sequence.) Wright doesn’t nearly approach the beauty or grace of his most popular period romance, Pride & Prejudice, but he clearly still has a flair for creatively staging scenes, with and without music. 

Cyrano might not impress on every level, but it’s a solid proving ground for Peter Dinklage as a lead actor. While the current state of cinema means it’s more likely that he ends up back on television than in more studio features, he has the star power to be the biggest face on the poster for whatever he does next. He’s been crushing key supporting roles since the early 2000s, and frankly there’s only so much more for him to accomplish as a fan-favorite side character or love interest. Here’s hoping that Cyrano is the beginning of a run of star vehicles for Peter Dinklage, so that he’s too busy and too expensive when HBO inevitably announces a Game of Thrones revival.