Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac — about the over-confident, swashbuckling poet whose self-esteem ends where his nose begins — has been directly or loosely adapted into film over a dozen times in the 130+ years since it was written. Two versions standout: the originally panned but now respected 1950 version film that netted José Ferrer a Best Actor Oscar in the main role (and to this day one of only of handful of Hispanic actors to receive this award) and the critically-acclaimed 1990 French adaptation that almost led Gerard Depardieu to the same statuette.
With so many takes on the story, the story that should at least in theory be familiar to most, the first question facing Joe Wright’s 2021 version is, “Why?” His film, entitled simply Cyrano, perhaps in recognition that 2021 audiences disdain foreign languages, provides at least two answers—to change the source of Cyrano’s ill-at-ease from his nose to another physical attribute, the first time this has been done, and to adapt it into a musical, also the first time this has been done on the silver screen, following a long series of musical theater adaptations.
But Joe Wright’s answer to the “Why?” question is not entirely satisfying. A song and pony show may suffice to bring lesser-known pieces to audiences, but the Cyrano tale is a classic, its five, tragic-comedic acts well-known or at least recognizable. Thankfully for Wright, he finds at least a partial answer elsewhere, in the immersive, nuanced performance by the lead actor of this adaptation, Peter Dinklage. The beloved actor’s performance is so emotionally powerful, perhaps given Dinklage’s unique ability to convey sorrowful, melancholic pain, that it arguably surpasses the now-legendary performances by Ferrer and Depardieu and, assuming the rest of the clunky movie does not stand in his way, could lead him to the Oscar glory those two achieved, as well.
Starting with the story, in case it somehow needs introduction, it proceeds in five acts, and the Erica Schmidt screenplay does not disturb them. Cyrano (Dinklage) is popular among the men of his regiment. This is France in the 1600s, and nobles, pickpockets, and men of courage line the streets. Among them is Cyrano’s sidekick Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin) as well as the mischievous Count De Guiche, who controls one of the battalions (Ben Mendehlson, a Joe Wright alum from Darkest Hour). Cyrano is on top of the world, winning duels and capturing the hearts of maidens, except for the one love he feels he cannot attain—that of his childhood friend, the beautiful and coquettish Roxanne (a very effective Haley Bennett). In the play and all prior films, it is de Bergerac’s outsized noses that convinces him she could have no eyes for him. Instead, it is the valiant, handsome new recruit, Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) for whom she falls.
The central conceit of the play is that Roxanne is imperious and demanding. She wants a hard brow and a soft heart, a man who is bold and beautiful but also romantic and sensible. Christian does not fit the bill—he can barely read let alone compose poetry. It falls on Cyrano, who would do anything to see his secret, tormented love happy, to furtively write love letters to Roxanne on behalf of Christian. As the story progresses, war, love, tragedy, weddings, death, all appear.
Wright’s story does not alter any of this except, of course, for the physical ailment that hobbles Cyrano—instead of an oversized nose, it’s his undersized stature. In some ways, this change fits well into the mostly light-hearted nature of Rostand’s classical-style play. It is slightly more absurd to think of Cyrano as a conquering duelist and swordsman when his height is half that of his opponents. Instead, Wright adds a musical element to the film, with the score and lyrics by the rock band, The National. Not all the pieces work, but Cyrano’s best moments come, without question, during some of the stunning renderings of these new songs, including a critical moment before battle, and a scene full of self-doubt. The crescendo style of the music, together with crisp and continuous scene editing by Valerio Bonelli, give the film its best scenes, outside of those in which Peter Dinklage shows up that is.
Naturally, you can expect pomp and circumstance in other tech aspects of this period piece, including the costumes by the talented Massimo Cantini Parrini, who we interviewed last year in connection with his meticulous work for Pinocchio. Massimo is quickly making him indispensable to any that want to properly dress up a period, somewhat gothic, somewhat classic style piece. The attention to detail is there, without being too flashy to the point of making it all look like a Disney fairy tale.
The biggest problem for 2021’s Cyrano and for Joe Wright as a whole is the script, which insists on repeatedly pushing the audience out of the immersive experience. It is challenging enough in 2021 to make a movie that is unabashedly about love with Cyrano’s ending — could something like Moulin Rouge get made today for audiences that demand certain types of resolutions? The fundamental issue with Schmitt’s screenplay is that it cannot decide whether it wants to be a 2021 movie, with its simpler, straightforward prose, or an 1880s play, poetic, bombastic, and lyrical. The lyrics of the National’s songs are mostly the former — monosyllabic, effortless lines that are aimed only at rhyming and letting the music do most of the word. Schmitt’s screenplay is mostly that, as well, except when it isn’t. At those points, it’s as if the music stops abruptly, as if the record screeches to a halt. The emotional pull of the Cyrano story is heavy, but this only makes these disruptions brusquer, as the emotional depth from which you are pulled out of the story by the jarring, constant juxtaposition between writing and speaking styles becomes more and more problematic.
By the time the curtain falls on the final act of this valiant attempt—nowhere near Wright’s best, given Atonement and others—you will be moved by the inherent appeal of this story, and you will be wowed by Dinklage’s heart-wrenching performance. You will also feel roller coaster whiplash, not from the fluctuating passions that fan the flames of the story, but from the irritating contrasts in these characters’ speaking styles.
Cyrano had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and will get a theatrical release on December 31, 2021.