In Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the protagonist is a French nobleman, soldier, top-level duelist, writer, poet and musician. He is strong-willed, and highly intelligent. The kind of guy who should be a hit with the beautiful and cultured women of the French aristocracy. But Cyrano has a physical attribute which stifles his ambitions – his abnormally large nose.
Rostand’s play was based on an actual person, but over the years it has come to take on comic proportions. Steve Martin played the character for laughs in his loose, 1987 interpretation, “Roxanne.” Jose Ferrer won an Oscar for his more traditional translation in 1950’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Not that another version was necessary, but British director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Darkest Hour”) has taken it upon himself to add a new twist to the story in “Cyrano,” in which the hero’s physical malady has changed. Now, rather than an oversized snout, Cyrano is a dwarf. And who better than to play Cyrano than our greatest dwarf actor, Peter Dinklage?
Dinklage first made a splash in 2003’s “The Station Agent,” and has since appeared in “Elf,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and many other films. And not only is Dinklage a dwarf, but he’s also an outstanding actor. As we might expect, he nails the Cyrano role – complete with his requisite command of language and his penchant for extemporary configuration of poetic verse.
Haley Bennett plays Roxanne, the subject of Cyrano’s unrequited affection; and Kelvin Harrison Jr. is Christian, the French soldier who has Roxanne’s heart, and for whom Cyrano composes love letters to Roxanne. Harrison played the lead in Trey Edward Shults’ criminally underseen 2019 flick “Waves,” and now adeptly handles the mostly comedic role of Christian.
Christian possesses a profound desire to reciprocate Roxanne’s affection, but he has no grasp of language. His speech often stumbles when he is unable to bring certain words to instant recall. Cyrano finds himself finishing Christian’s sentences, and Wright plays this technique to great comedic result. When Roxanne demands to speak with Christian in person, Cyrano stands behind a partition to provide the “language of love” to Christian. As is often the case, these middle comedic scenes are the highlight of this re-telling.
Where I fault Wright (and Erica Schmidt, who adapted her own stage musical version of Rostand’s work to the big screen) is in his choice to base his film on a musical in the first place. I admittedly have not seen Schmidt’s musical, but it seems as though the effect may be pleasing, given the smaller, finite confines of a theatrical stage. On the big screen, where there are no “stage limits,” Wright’s film feels too “small.” The result is that the proceedings come off as unimportant. The swashbuckling of the duels, and the comedic effect of the Cyrano/Christian effort are reduced to nothing more than action between musical numbers.
Unfortunately, the Aaron and Bryce Dessner songs are primarily slow and draggy and are not used to further the narrative. The result is that the action of the screenplay comes to a roaring halt every time the actors break into song – much as in Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” in 1983. And not that anything could have saved it, but Richard Fleischer’s big-budget 1967 musical adaptation of “Dr. Dolittle” was guilty of the same thing: the uninteresting musical numbers brought the story to a screeching halt. Need a bathroom break? Leave when an actor starts singing. Upon your return, you won’t have missed anything important.
And that’s a shame, because “Cyrano” needs to move along at a quick clip. It’s basically a silly story, and the more time we have to dwell on its authenticity, the less interest we have in its outcome. If Wright had opted for a more conventional approach (i.e., without song), he could have compressed the film’s running time from two hours down to 90 minutes – and given us an amusing, plucky, debonair interpretation of a story most of us know and enjoy. But the songs simply don’t work here.
Furthermore, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is too dark. The nighttime scenes are dimly lit, to the point we have difficulty reading the facial expressions of the actors. There’s no reason night scenes are required to be shot in dull light, and this technique (along with the dispiriting music) only serves to give “Cyrano” an indifferent feel.
“Cyrano” is a missed opportunity that benefits from a first-rate performance by Dinklage, and some astute interplay between Dinklage and Harrison. The fact that it is a musical is its downfall. I liked a lot of “Cyrano,” but not enough to recommend it.