Cyrano review: Peter Dinklage recasts a classic as a sumptuous Mediterranean musical
Some people got deep into bread or knitting during the pandemic; director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour, Atonement) went to Sicily and made a musical out of one of classic literature's most indelible heroes. He is not, of course, the first filmmaker to put Cyrano de Bergerac on screen: Dozens of movies and stage musicals precede him, a showcase for stars like Christopher Plummer, Gérard Depardieu, and even Steve Martin (who played the role as a small-town fire chief with a Rhode Island-size nose in the 1987 romantic-comedy update Roxanne).
Here, the physical trait that sends Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) into the shadows despite his evident intelligence and bravery is his stature; how dare he expect to earn the hand of the land's greatest beauty (Hillbilly Elegy's Haley Bennett), when his own hardly reaches her clavicle? In public life, he's a fearless swashbuckler and raconteur, a noted swordsman whose pitiless wit cuts nearly as sharp as his blade. In private, he pines for the lovely Roxanne, whose relative poverty forces her to accept the attentions of a predatory nobleman, De Guiche (a preening Ben Mendelsohn, who happily eats parts like these for breakfast).
But Cyrano isn't the only one who's smitten; a young soldier named Christian (Waves' Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has the same girl in his sights, though he lacks the verbal skills, or at least the confidence, to woo her. And so the pair combine forces to create a sort of supersuitor: Christian's flawless face, Cyrano's pretty words. (South Side's Bashir Salahuddin, as the loyal but wary Le Bret, is the only other one who really knows the extent of his friend's feelings and the danger he's courting with his subterfuge.)
Wright has a way of creating whole sumptuous self-contained worlds in projects like Anna Karenina and even the recent, regrettable The Woman in the Window, and Cyrano betrays none of COVID-era filmmaking's now-familiar limitations. His expansive colorblind casting and sun-drenched exteriors bring new richness to Erica Schmidt's 2018 theater piece (she also penned the script) — almost every shot is framed like a Renaissance painting, and the songs, by members of indie-rock stalwarts the National, have an earnest, orchestral tunefulness.
The musical bits are worn lightly, less an anchor for the film than a sort of warm filigree traced on top. And the main cast mostly treats them that way, forgoing big gestures and jazz-hands theatricality for a more easy kind of naturalism that serves the modesty of the melodies well. (Of them all, Bennett has the closest thing to a real performer's voice, supple and intimate.) What the movie never quite sells is its central love story; it must be the romance of the century, because the characters can't stop saying (or singing) so, but the pair's supposedly crucial bond feels more like sweet friendship forced to conform to the worn contours of a fairy tale. The real draw is Dinklage: with his mournful eyes and crooked smile, he's the tender, towering soul of Cyrano. B+
After a one-week qualifying run in New York and L.A. beginning Dec. 17, Cyrano arrives in limited release on Jan. 28 and goes wider in early Februrary.