Directed by: Joe Wright
Distributed by: MGM Studios
Written by Patrick Hao
It is easy to snicker at maximalist earnestness, especially in the cinematic medium which rewards subtlety. But, as popular mainstream cinema moves towards more a plot-centric mode, “Cyrano,” based on one of the most old-fashioned of source material, feels like a breath of fresh air in its total embrace of maximalist emotions. This should come as no surprise coming from Joe Wright, a filmmaker whose mix of theatricality with the cinematic form has always been what distinguished him from many of the other British filmmakers of his generation.
“Cyrano,” as one can glean, is a musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” In this version, the romantic swashbuckling hero, dexterous with his words, is not hindered in romance by his large nose. Rather in this version, it is his diminished height that hinders Cyrano’s romantic prospects. In casting Peter Dinklage, a formidable and charismatic screen presence, it is not hard to imagine Cyrano rising to be one of the leaders of the armed guards while also having the ability to best anyone with words. It is also hard not to imagine why Roxanne (Haley Bennett) would never have considered Cyrano as a prospective lover but as more of a brother figure.
Roxanne has always been a tricky character to get right. The audience sympathies will ultimately lean towards the romantic hero of Cyrano. It is easy to make Roxanne vain and shallow, especially as she parries the attempts of courtship from the villainous Duke Du Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn) while also reveling in the rich gifts he lavishes upon her. But here, the smart screenplay from the original playwright of this musical version by Erica Schmidt and the performance from the always underrated Bennett infuses Roxanne with the deep longing for a love that can satisfy her wits as much as her sexuality. There isn’t a faux girl-bossification of Roxanne here, which a modern adaptation could have easily done. Rather, she seems of a piece for her time.
The third side of the love triangle is Christian. Played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., who up to this point has shown flashes of brilliance in movies like “Waves” and “Luce”, Christian utilizes all of Harrison’s boyish naive charm. It is easy to see why Roxanne would fall for Christian at first sight and the other way around. Their love, reminiscent of the great young romances, is easy to root for. When Roxanne recruits Cyrano to facilitate their love through an exchanging of letters, Cyrano taking both his pride and Roxanne’s well-being in mind, decides to take upon himself with Christian’s blessing to write love letters to Roxanne in Christian’s name.
Wright is also not afraid of close ups and theatricality. His greatest tool is the emotionally expressive face of Dinklage whose pained expression and piercing blue eyes is utilized to its maximum effect. Wright’s close ups expose the anguish of romanticism. It is so nakedly vulnerable that it won’t be surprising if some people find it uncomfortable to stew in. The three central performances also ground any of Wright’s maximalist tendencies to something that is believable.
The music by The National, the moody indie pop group, suffuses the whole film with the tonal feeling of aching love that works for this film but might be its greatest hindrance in it becoming a hit at the box office. The ballads fitted towards the wistful softness of Bennett’s voice, the melancholic baritone of Dinklage’s, and the swooning ease of Harrison’s dictates enveloping raw emotions. Wright’s direction also smartly allows the emotions to naturally develop, punctuating the songs with gliding cameras and modern dance. One prime example is in the song “Every Letter” which brings the three voices into harmony through crossfades and superimpositions. It is also a ballad of horniness which has been actively devoid in all the other musicals of 2021.
The song, while it has ear-wormed its way into my subconscious, is more in line with the mood pieces of “Annette” than the pop cornucopia of “In the Heights” and “Tick, Tick… Boom!” For a certain group that might make “Cyrano” worth dismissing. But the song in its slow melodic form best fits the melodramatic emotional openness of the film. The closest thing to a pop tune is Bennett’s “I Need More” which both in composition in music and filmmaking is an ode to the over-the-top music videos of Kate Bush. Then there are songs like the ensemble number like “Wherever I Fall,” a quiet heartbreaking ditty to final wishes.
I worry for little gems like “Cyrano,” which although is getting a good-sized release, feels so much like the antithesis of modern mainstream films. But this is a film that relishes the aching feelings that the great works used to be able to offer the audience at a consistent pace. To experience “Cyrano” in the theater feels like being part of the grand tradition of art. To allow something to flush you with the experiences of heartbreak, anguish, and love. And that is special.
“Cyrano” is in wide theatrical release.