Peter Dinklage ghostwrites love letters and Ben Mendelsohn gets villainous again in this charming, easy-to-swoon-over musical romance.
February 24, 2022
Love can spring quickly, igniting sparks instantly. Or, it can build gradually and gracefully, including over a lifetime. It can be swift and bold like a lightning strike, too, or it can linger, evolve and swell like a gentle breeze. In the sumptuous confines of Cyrano, all of the above happens. The latest adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, this time as a musical via playwright Erica Schmidt's own song-filled on-stage version, lends its attention to two men who've fallen for the plucky Roxanne (Haley Bennett, Hillbilly Elegy) in opposite ways. Charming soldier Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr, The Trial of the Chicago 7) gets the fast-and-infatuated experience, while the movie's namesake (Peter Dinklage, I Care a Lot), a poet also handy in battle, has ached for his childhood pal for as long as he can remember.
Roxanne's two suitors make a chalk-and-cheese pair, with their contrasting approaches to matters of the heart — specifically, to winning her heart and helping ensure that she doesn't have to marry the rich and ruthless De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, The Outsider) to secure her future — driving much of Cyrano's drama. Also present and accounted for, as all takes on the tale have included (see also: 80s rom-com Roxanne with Steve Martin, the Gérard Depardieu-starring Cyrano de Bergerac, 90s rom-com The Truth About Cats & Dogs with Uma Thurman and Janeane Garofalo, plus recent Netflix teen flicks Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and The Half of It): insecurities about appearance, a way with words and a ghostwriting gambit. Short in stature given Dinklage's casting, Cyrano can't even dream that Roxanne could love him. But he wants her to be happy above all else and knows that she's smitten with Christian, so he secretly lends his romantic rival his letter-penning abilities to help woo her by lyrical prose.
This Cyrano may have a different reason for not believing that Roxanne could reciprocate his feelings, even as she gets giddy over the correspondence he scripts for Christian — traditionally, a large nose gets in his way — but his slow-and-steady affection is especially apt in this particular film. The latest period piece from Joe Wright, it slips into the British director's resume alongside Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, and initially seems as standard a silver-screen staging of Cyrano as a musical as he could reliably muster. But all three of those aforementioned movies are stunning in their own ways, especially the gutsy Anna Karenina. Unsurprisingly, his newest feature is as well. Doing his best work since that Tolstoy adaptation, and clearly back in his comfort zone after Pan, Darkest Hour and The Woman in the Window, Wright lets Cyrano take its time to bloom and blossom. And, when it flowers partway through, it makes viewers realise that it's been a gorgeous gem of a film all along.
Like on-screen love story, like surrounding flick, basically. That said, the routine air that initially seems to float through Cyrano's first act can't have been by design. Rather, the film winds up to its full heart-wrenching powers so patiently that it appears a tad too expected while its various pieces are being put into place — a fact hardly helped by how often this exact narrative or variations of it have made it to screens — until it's just simply and unshakeably wonderful. Wright doesn't change anything in his approach, helming a handsome, detail-laden, rhythmic piece of cinema from the outset, but the emotions that truly make the movie sing strengthen minute by minute. And yes, when it all clicks in just so, it's with its three main players literally crooning, conveying so much about their huge, swirling, all-encompassing feelings that normal dialogue couldn't have done justice to.
That swooning sensation — because this is a feature that it's easy to tumble head-over-heels for — helps answer the obvious question that needs asking whenever a famed tale gains songs. That query: why? Wright and screenwriter Schmidt, the latter of whom is married to Dinklage and wrote her crooning-heavy stage version for him in 2018, reply by making it rousingly plain how much yearning and desire resides in each musical number. The movie's tunes come courtesy of The National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner, fresh from their efforts scoring C'mon C'mon, and prove worlds away from big, barnstorming Broadway numbers. Emotionally sweeping, they survey the full range from longing to heartache, while also navigating an immensely tricky task: relaying what simmers inside each character that not only goes unspoken, but isn't inked in the feature's back-and-forth love letters.
Thank goodness for not just Wright's finessed handling of these musical scenes, which lets those sung-about feelings echo with weight and heart-swelling resonance, but also for his clear passion for the musical genre. This marks his first entry, although both rhythm and music have been key to so much of his back catalogue — not the least of which being spy thriller Hanna with its melodic Chemical Brothers score — and he whirls properly into the fold like he was always meant to dance there. Even when no one is singing, Cyrano has the soul of a musical in its lush staging, Seamus McGarvey's (Bad Times at the El Royale) fleet-footed cinematography, the pace instilled by Valerio Bonelli's (The Woman in the Window) lithe editing and its performances. It has its own beat and vibe, and every element drums and hums along in time.
Also trilling the right tune, regardless of whether they're singing (which they each do well): Dinklage, Bennett and Harrison Jr. Australia's own Mendo still gives exceptional villain, and darkly and cunningly so; however, being enamoured with Cyrano's main trio is inescapable. The decision to cast Dinklage and Bennett straight from the stage production is a winner. He imparts melancholy, wit and spark into his romantic lead, as he so consistently did in Game of Thrones, too, while she ensures that Roxanne's quest for a big and fulfilling life — and love — cuts deep. And, as much chemistry buzzes between the two, enlisting Luce and Waves' standout Harrison Jr as the man between them is another masterstroke. Indeed, Cyrano adores Roxanne and Christian's romance as much as it feels its eponymous figure's pining, loves his rhapsodic words and wants his heart's desire to come true — and sharing it all comes, gradually but still overwhelmingly, with the cost of admission.
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