Directed by Joe Wright
Well hello, “Cyrano.” I have so much to say about this singularly exceptional film, I don’t know where to start. At the beginning, I suppose, in 1897, when Edmond Rostand’s play “Cyrano de Bergerac” premiered in Parisian theaters. Based very loosely on the life of the real-life Parisian Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand’s play was a hit. It’s inspired more than a dozen movie adaptations in the 120 years since—some faithful to the source, others merely inspired by it. It’s also inspired two musical versions—one that landed Christopher Plummer a Tony Award in 1974, and another from 2018 that featured original music and songs by The National. This is the one director Joe Wright and screenwriter Erica Schmidt (wife of actor Peter Dinklage) adapted…and, might I say, quite successfully.
Army cadet Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is a man of many talents. He’s an expert swordsman and an articulate poet. But he’s also terribly proud, which prevents him from confessing his love to his oldest friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett), for he’s sure that someone as beautiful as her couldn’t love someone who looks like him. This reluctance to share his feelings drags out so long, Roxanne finally meets someone else—a handsome, charming soldier in Cyrano’s regiment, Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). Roxanne tasks her friend Cyrano with looking after Christian, and Christian asks Cyrano to help him write her letters. When Roxanne begins falling for Cyrano’s beautiful words, Christian knows he’ll need Cyrano’s help courting her.
Peter Dinklage gives one of the year’s most heartfelt and exciting performances. You feel like he’s acting from a place of experience. His singing may be a bit unpolished, but it’s earnest. And The National’s songs, reworked from the songs they wrote for the staged musical, are the kind that seem destined to be sung by hopeless romantics sitting in the comfort of their loneliness. Truly, besides maybe Haley Bennett, none of the actors seem like very good singers—but they’re all very good at singing in a way that tells us what their characters are feeling. Bennett, I regret to say, has always had an anonymous quality to her. Her soft features make her look like any and every other pale, fair-haired actress of a certain, undetermined age. That’s not to say she’s not good at what she does. She’s perfect for the role of the rich, blissfully ignorant beauty. A future Princess Buttercup, perhaps, if Hollywood is ever dumb enough to remake “The Princess Bride” (there’d be riots). Kelvin Harrison, Jr. has grown a lot since 2017’s “It Comes at Night,” which was the first time I remember hearing his name. He makes each of his roles his, and this one is no different. Who would’ve thought one actor could play the chillingly taciturn Luce in 2019 and then turn around and play Christian here? And do both so well? “Cyrano,” which filmed on Sicily during the COVID pandemic, also gets help from about 150 extras who play multiple roles. That helped keep the cast—and their COVID bubble—manageably small.
I don’t know which parts of this script were pulled from the original play or the 2018 musical, and which were written for this movie, but I can say I was in love with all of it. Characters bounce playfully poetic lines back and forth in a way that’s both traditional and modern. I guess when I say traditional I mean smart. Some people might need a dictionary handy, but it beats movies that refuse to speak above a fourth-grade reading level. I miss when writers wrote like this—when they could see the beauty in tragedy and irony. “Cyrano” is also humorous, but not silly like it used to be. Traditionally, Cyrano sports a clownishly large prosthetic nose. Here, that outdated joke is replaced by something more honest—Peter Dinklage, without prosthetics, playing Cyrano with a level of straightforwardness I doubt other portrayals have had. And because of it, “Cyrano” is genuinely affecting (if a bit predictable, at times…but the story has been copied so many times in various ways, it’s not its fault we all know of it).
Why is nobody really talking about “Cyrano”? I can’t be the only one who was more impressed with this story of unrequited love than I was with almost any other movie in 2021…right?