“You must let her decide our fate. She must have the choice!”
In 1897, Edmund Rostand wrote a play named Cyrano De Bergerac; a fictionalised story of the real-life French 17th century writer and duelist of the same name.That play has gone on to be adapted to screen multiple times; the latest being Cyrano, a musical version itself adapted from a 2018 stage musical written by Erica Schmidt, with music written by members of The National. That stage version starred Peter Dinklage as Cyrano, adapting the original story of Cyrano De Bergerac’s “deformity” (most often characterised as a large nose) to instead play on Dinklage’s achondroplasia as the source of the character’s lack of self-confidence.
Guard captain and notorious intellectual Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) has a reputation for strong words and the ability to back them up, but he also has a secret; he is in love with his childhood friend, the esteemed (but broke) beauty Roxanne (Haley Bennett). An eventful night at the theatre sees Roxanne cross paths with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who has arrived in town to join Cyrano’s guard. When Roxanne professes it was love at first sight and makes Cyrano promise to ensure Christian writes to her; Christian and Cyrano begin to work together to woo her in a deception which cannot hope to last…
Cyrano is an interesting piece of cinema, as its construction is very much akin to most cinematic adaptations of the works of Shakespeare, in that it does not abandon the stage play that it has been born out of. Erica Schmidt herself adapted the play for screen, maintaining the basis of her piece and expanding the world into a cinematic landscape; and with Joe Wright on hand to direct, the feel of the film still holds itself as very theatrical. For me, this works to its credit; by keeping more theatrical beats and staging as central to the flow of the film, it almost elevates the romanticism on hand, as well as creating an atmosphere that allows the musical interludes and the larger choral scenes to fit more comfortably into the action. Wright’s history of highly-regarded literary adaptations and historical dramas mean that his direction of Cyrano very much plays to his strengths; he leans in heavily on the dramatic scenery (with the majority of the film being shot around the island of Sicily) to further elevate the theatricality of Cyrano; with a number of the specific scene locations themselves reflecting what one might expect the set to look like for the theatrical version. As an adaptation of a French play about a famous linguist, the scenario lends itself to a style of dialogue which is both more flowery and more intricate, with Cyrano in particular getting to grips with extensive similes and metaphors, and this style of dialogue falls right in line with Wright’s previous working bringing works by the likes of Jane Austen to life on screen. There’s something about the fact this story is played straight for the most part, but is elevated beyond that by it’s theatrical presentation; it’s sweeping musical score and numbers, impressive choral dance presentations and its dedication to desperate, passionate exploration of love that held it up high in my esteem. I’m sure not everyone will agree with me on that front, as some prefer their theatrical performances to remain on the stage, but the sense of movement, both physically and verbally, that leaning on the original theatrical performance brings makes Cyrano more playful at its core; and that allows for a stark contrast when the narrative takes Cyrano and Christian onto the battlefield, and the playfulness is stripped back to highlight the hardships which their regiment are enduring.
Those sweeping musical numbers are of great importance to the success of this story. As previously mentioned, the score was written by The National, expanding out the music they had originally written for the stage version. For me, the most interesting thing about the music here is that, while Cyrano is absolutely a musical; the music does not feel or sound like what one would expect from “a musical”, and I think that works to its benefit. In a year where we have had some truly excellent traditional musicals hit the big screen, having a film where the music feels like it was written for the story, rather than being written around the story, makes it stand out. The songs still drive the narrative, but they fit into the whole picture in a different way than one might expect, and one which I am proving is quite hard to really explain.
The Nationals’ lead singer, Matt Berninger, sings at around the same pitch and timbre as Peter Dinklage, which makes the group perfect to write music for him. This is key to note; Dinklage and Bennett are primarily here because they were the stars of the original stage play; Schmidt wrote this version of Cyrano specifically for Dinklage to play, hence the hinging of Cyrano’s character hanging so much off his stature as opposed to a more shallow interpretation of supposed “ugliness”. The songs are well sung, and the depth and power of Dinklage’s singing voice is somewhat of a surprise; and it pairs beautifully with Bennett’s, accentuated further by the score’s focus on strings for the majority, accented and assisted by piano for the most part. Kelvin Harrison Jr. also sings well, with his higher-pitched voice marking him out with a more youthful naivety against Dinklage’s deeper vocals, and the three together weave a tapestry through song that helps drive the narrative forward in a way that is a real credit to The National’s work here. One other song deserves a highlight, though the main cast barely feature; Wherever I Fall, a song written from the viewpoint of soldiers at war, writing home to their loved ones; is such a beautifully crafted and moving piece of music that I am surprised that it didn’t get an Academy award nomination; though I am perhaps allowing the emotion I personally felt for that scene in the cinema, as someone who is ostensibly far from home (in one interpretation of the phrase) to influence that thought. It’s performed by Glen Hansard, Sam Amidon and Scott Folan, all of whom are actors and singers, and all of whom deserve plenty of plaudits for the power and emotion of their performances in this piece.
Our cast does more than sing, though, and Cyrano is an impressive advertisement for the advantages of casting Peter Dinklage as a leading man. Those familiar with Game Of Thrones will be familiar with Dinklage’s intellectual charisma through his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister; but Cyrano allows us to see more of his physical strengths, as he plays a character who is a skilled duelist, a regiment captain; crafting a deep and complex dichotomy around the hardened poet, the romantic soldier. It’s an incredible performance from a fantastically skilled actor, and it would be a joy to see this launch him into more leading roles. He is well matched by Bennett; who brings an ethereal beauty to Roxanne, while also presenting a very down-to-earth characterisation of a young woman with broad fantasies of what love should be. It’s another complex portrayal; a kind, good-hearted young woman with the capacity to feel great scorn and betrayal if things are not progressing exactly in the way she imagines them, and her characterisation goes some way into unearthing some of the more emotional subtext of the script, delving even beyond the huge, belting emotional musical numbers she gets to grips with. Kelvin Harrison Jr. puts in a strong showing here too; bringing us a sense of youthful arrogance but also a lack of confidence all in one; his exuberance and excitement around his deceit with Cyrano and his hope of love with Roxanne coming across handsomely; his rage when he discovers that Cyrano has not been honest regarding his personal intentions striking through the portrayal with both a sense of emotional immaturity but a bravery that we hadn’t seen previously, and Harrison Jr. brings this out of Christian with great skill.
Ben Mendehlson is on hand as our de facto villain in the form of Duke De Guiche; who is also attempting to woo Roxanne, though less successfully. While the story doesn’t need a traditional villain for its primary function, De Guiche works an interesting narrative device at certain key moments, and Mendhelson is perfectly suited to the role and carries it off well; even delivering an impressively booming performance for his only song; an aggressive and passionate doctrine dedicated to the entitlement of the ruling classes. There a host of wonderful supporting performances; Bashir Salahuddin is beautifully playful as Cyrano’s closest friend Le Bret, Monica Dolan is fantastic as Roxanne’s attendant Marie, getting a number of stand-out jokes; and Joshua James puts in a great performance as De Guiche’s friend Valvert; a snide, arrogant worm of a man who finds himself at odds with Cyrano both physically and linguistically and struggles to spar with him in either regard.
Cyrano was not the film I expected it to be, and I mean that in the best possible way. With a stellar performance from Peter Dinklage (who is very much the star of this film and the main reason it is so enjoyable), brilliant work from Haley Bennet and Kelvin Harrison Jr. and a spate of great supporting roles; it is the structure of this piece, the faith it has in its theatrical origin, and the the tremendous score that really sets it apart as a dark horse in the awards field this year. See this film if you can, you won’t regret it; especially if you’ve ever loved someone so much you could feel it burning inside you.