Synopsis: Too self-conscious to woo Roxanne himself, wordsmith Cyrano de Bergerac helps young Christian nab her heart through love letters.
Stars: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Joe Wright
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: An early movie I remember seeing with my parents in the theater was 1987’s Roxanne. As a then 7-year-old, I was mostly fixated on Steve Martin’s comically large nose and the jokes made at its expense. The overall fluffiness of that rom-com (which Martin himself adapted from Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac) went right over my young head, as it should have. However, revisiting the film over the ensuing years and seeing other adaptations of the famous play made me appreciate more the complexity of the original Rostand work and the strength of Martin’s screenplay.
In a new 2018 musical adaptation that played at the Goodspeed Opera House, writer Erica Schmidt brought another fresh take on the piece to viewers, this time starring her husband, award-winning actor Peter Dinklage. At the peak of his Game of Thrones power, it was a risky move for Dinklage to take the singing role, but it was well-received and soon moved to an off-Broadway run the following year. Also starring alongside him in that first production was Haley Bennett (Hillbilly Elegy) as Roxanne, the beauty Cyrano (Dinklage, Three Christs) loves from afar.
Too prideful and ashamed of his own perceived physical limitations, Cyrano watches as Roxanne avoids the clutches of the scheming De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, Captain Marvel) and finds love at first sight with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves), a guard in Cyrano’s command. A man possessing great skill with words but lacking the same confidence in his ability to receive the enormity of love he has to offer, Cyrano instead opts to befriend Christian and help him woo Roxanne. If anything, it’s better to help Roxanne achieve her dreams than to have her paired with De Guiche and his smarmy sort.
Roxanne isn’t entirely helpless, though. When she works out a plan that keeps Christian and Cyrano close to her while sending other men off to the Thirty-Year War that rages on, it allows the men more time to accelerate their letters to the woman both are smitten with, but only one can pursue outright. When Christian decides it’s time to leave Cyrano behind and take the relationship to the next level on his own, it exposes vulnerabilities in all three leading characters. Christian, in his realization that women are more complex than he imagined, Cyrano understanding the depth to which his poetic professions of love have convinced Roxanne of Christian’s admiration, and Roxanne of her desire for more than simple words on a page to satisfy the passion she feels inside.
“When you can’t speak, you sing” is how many would describe the best kind of musical, and that’s how many of the songs featured in Cyrano work the best. Written by members of The National and possessing many of that band’s signature storytelling phrasing and driving beat, I’m not going to lead you astray and say that every number worked for me because it didn’t. It took a while for me to gel totally with the sound, and while melodically it matched the tone of director Joe Wright’s film and many of the performances, it didn’t always flow as naturally through the story itself. It’s around the time Roxanne feels betrayed by Christian and Bennett gets to finally unleash her powerful voice that you begin to take notice of what’s really happening sonically in the piece.
Bennett singing “I Need More” is a turning point for the film and me as a viewer/listener, signaling a change in the tide for the characters going into more emotional places and the songs feeling like they are coming from the heart rather than from the head. Directly following this song is a beauty of a musical exchange between Roxanne and Cyrano, who she thinks is Christian. Dinklage doesn’t have the most striking voice, but its resonance equals a presence that works wonders in the role. A later song between three soldiers will get your tear ducts prepped for a final number between Bennett and Dinklage that beautifully ends the film in line with Rostand’s original text.
In the traditional telling, it’s Cyrano’s nose which is the trait he is self-conscious about, but in Schmidt’s version, it has been taken out, with Dinklage’s height being the feature he feels holds him back. I wouldn’t call that a revolutionary, out-of-the-box concept. Still, it’s a fantastic showcase for the actor who has had great success in television but has always skirted on the sidelines of leading men in feature films. There’s an ease to his work here, and it matches well with Bennett’s airy and impressive take on a character that can often be treated as cursory to the more famous actor playing the title role. If Harrison Jr. doesn’t land as well as the other leads, it’s because they have slightly better musical material to work with, and he’s been so good in other films that Christian feels like a step sideways in his career trajectory instead of up. As for Mendelsohn, as good as he is, there’s a distinct feeling that he’s letting the gorgeous Oscar-nominated costumes from Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran (Little Women) do the work for him.
In many ways, Cyrano is the perfect film for Wright (Darkest Hour) to land because the director is so theatrical in his endeavors, and in any medium it appears the piece has always felt stage bound. It’s less of an actual “stage come to life” work of art as he achieved with 2012’s Anna Karenina, but the production design of Cyrano is often stunning and as beautiful as the people, music, and materials waltzing through it. Though it takes a while to find its voice, it has a clarion sound that gets right to the heart once uncovered.