I have no shame in admitting that my love for movies takes up most of my personality. To save time, I won’t dive deep into why cinema puts me under a spell. But if there’s one reason that stands above the rest, it’s that it offers an emotional range all its own. While visual arts such as theater can elicit hefty emotions, they reach a hard limit due to the audience’s fixed perspective. An audience may have the ability to observe the bodies of the performers. However, the extreme distance from the stage prevents viewers from seeing faces in stark detail. Contrast that with movies, which can shift between wide shots and close-ups at will. Quite honestly, it’s this ability to cut between perspectives that gives cinema a distinct edge.
Why, then, do I bring this up in the context of 2021’s Cyrano? As it turns out, this is not just an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s iconic romance play. This is an adaptation of Erica Schmidt’s 2018 stage musical, also titled Cyrano. This is most evident in how it creates a new appearance for its title character. Instead of portraying Cyrano de Bergerac with a large nose, he is now portrayed as a dwarf. And to maximize parity between stage and screen, we have Peter Dinklage – who happens to be Schmidt’s husband – reprising his role as Cyrano. Given these parallels, the movie needs to lean into a cinematic style in order to not be redundant. Thankfully, director Joe Wright juggles between lavishness and intimacy that only a movie could have.
To the surprise of no one, the skeleton is the same as it ever was. As always, Cyrano is a poet who wants to profess his love towards longtime friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett, also reprising her role from the musical). But there’s a big problem: he has the fear she will not love him back due to his unconventional looks. At the same time, Roxanne falls in love with a young guard named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). However, Christian has a stumbling block of his own: his lack of eloquence. Upon this discovery, Cyrano devises a plan to create the ideal version of Roxanne’s lover. This involves Cyrano being the ghostwriter of the love letters Christian will send to Roxanne. But with a secretive love triangle like that, the chances of complicating existing relationships are high indeed.
No retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac can succeed without giving the main character a sense of depth. Fortunately, Dinklage is here to provide exactly that. His dwarfism may be his most recognizable feature, but his weathered face might be the thing that puts him in the pantheon of great actors. And with a character like Cyrano, he gets many opportunities to utilize his face in ways that exude weary excitement and fear. In virtually every scene, Dinklage makes Cyrano appear like any other adult with life problems. Combine that with Wright’s insistence on close-ups and you get a protagonist that is relatable even as he makes poor decisions.
Speaking of Wright, his experience in livening up period pieces pays off in dividends here. Of course, a musical is more likely to have vibrance than not. Still, it’s remarkable how easy it is to watch when put through an aesthetic this soft and warm. The one time that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey deviates from this is during the war scene near the climax, which leans heavily towards grays. Considering the tragic turns late in the story, this decision cannot help but feel appropriate. Aiding with the period aesthetic are Massimo Cantini Parrini’s delightful costumes, which walk the fine line between being lavish and being practical.
That said, Wright does not spend his entire energy on making the experience lively. In fact, he spends just as much time staging scenes to be as still as possible. By keeping sweeping camera moves to a minimum, it allows the characters to express themselves as they are. The clearest example of this is the balcony scene with Roxanne and Christian. Even though he – and by extension Cyrano – expresses his love for her from a distance, the camera does not sway between them. As a result, they appear as if they are on the same playing field. In doing so, the scene becomes genuinely intimate.
To be fair, Cyrano reaches limits of its own due to being so faithful to the 2018 stage musical. For one thing, they inherit the songs written by indie rock band The National. While each one has a clear purpose in the story, they tend to work better lyrically than musically. Composers Aaron and Bryce Dessner certainly don’t do a bad job with creating cohesive melodies, but only a few of them are outright memorable. There’s also the issue of the narrative slowing down considerably as it enters its war-torn climax. Although this section has strong moments of its own, it does so by spending a lot of time on tertiary characters. Lastly, it has to contend with the fact that Dinklage’s singing voice is at times too gravelly for its own good.
All of this is to say that I spent most of Cyrano pleased rather than overjoyed. In that regard, it’s easy to see it as a small disappointment. But the fact remains: Wright and his team took the time and effort to make an old tale feel fresh. As much as I can admit that Cyrano de Bergerac is far from my favorite romantic tale, I could never accuse this film of being lazy with it. And with Dinklage serving as an excellent human anchor, it earns its placement in the pantheon of Cyrano retellings and then some. – Mark Tan
Cyrano will release nationwide on January 21, 2022.
The film stars Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn.