More sublime than tears

This ‘Cyrano’ has heart and soul as well as style

You don’t have to turn on the red light: Haley Bennett plays Roxanne, the romantic interest in Joe Wright’s love triangle musical “Cyrano.”

Edmond Rostand's revered five-act play "Cyrano de Bergerac" first premiered on Dec. 27, 1897, at the famed Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris. Since then, the story of the French nobleman with the unmissable long nose has been retold countless times on stage. There have also been more than 15 feature film adaptations including this latest effort by English director Joe Wright.

"Cyrano" is a fabulous new telling of this literary classic that's more directly linked to Erica Schmidt's 2018 stage musical. Wright enlists Schmidt to pen the screenplay and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (who some might know from the rock band The National) to handle the songs. What they give us is a remarkably fresh take on this romantic tragedy, anchored by a stunning Peter Dinklage lead performance and full of touching musical numbers.

Dinklage plays the title character Cyrano with a heart-crushing sincerity. Gone is the long nose from the original production. Instead it's Cyrano's small stature that leaves him questioning his own worth. Cyrano is hardly a pushover, equally lethal with both lyrics and the sword. He has personality in spades and quite the reputation with his fellow soldiers. But his confidence in himself wanes when it comes to what he loves most in life, a fair maiden named Roxanne (Haley Bennett).

Roxanne is a bubbly romantic at her core, looking for someone who truly loves her. But her family wants to marry her off to the wealthy Duke De Guiche (a preening yet slickly sinister Ben Mendelsohn). "Children need love," her cynical maid brays, "adults need money." Bennett makes a terrific Roxanne, portraying her as lively and innocent but with just a touch of vanity. Enough to blind her to her childhood friend Cyrano's poorly veiled love for her.

Instead Roxanne's eyes lock onto Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a hunky new recruit in the Duke's regiment. He's tall, brave and equally infatuated with Roxanne. But he has an Achilles heel. The good-hearted but bumbling Christian couldn't put together a romantic sentence if his life depended on it. Underneath his boyish good looks is a young man utterly incapable of expressing his feelings, especially to a woman. Enter Cyrano, an effortlessly graceful wordsmith who agrees to secretly pen Christian's letters to Roxanne. "I can make you eloquent," Cyrano tells Christian in one of the film's more heartbreaking lines, "and you can make me handsome."

So the two enter into the most unusual of partnerships. For Christian it's an opportunity to use the words of another to woo this enchanting young woman. For Cyrano it's about making Roxanne happy. But deeper down, the sad truth is he believes this is the closest he'll ever get to sharing his true feelings with her.

Going back to its earliest days, this story has always been a little preposterous, mainly because the plan hatched by Christian and Cyrano was always doomed to fail. But what makes it palatable is the aching heart of Cyrano. Here, Dinklage conveys that tragic element of the story through his pained eyes but also through his mournful baritone. Whether it's dialogue or song, Dinklage exquisitely embodies a character both driven and haunted by an unquenchable longing. "My sole purpose in this world is to love Roxanne."

Though made during the covid-19 era, Wright and his able team of creators show none of the limitations they were forced to work through. Shot entirely in Sicily, the film is a sumptuous collage of location, lighting, costumes and production design. Wright strategically uses what he has to create a film that genuinely looks and feels bigger than it actually is. And when you thread in the Dressner brothers' earnest melancholy-laced lyrics, you have movie with heart and soul as well as style.

If there's one nagging issue, it's that I wasn't always convinced by the swooning affection between Roxanne and Christian. It sometimes comes across as shallow puppy-love more than a believable romance. But even then it's Dinklage who gives us something to latch onto. And as the film takes its more somber turn (once Mendelsohn's vindictive Duke sends both Cyrano and Christian off to war), Dinklage peels back yet another intriguing layer to his character.

While 2021 brought with it a wealth of new musicals, "Cyrano" is easily among the best of them. What Joe Wright has managed is pretty remarkable. Visually, his movie impresses, from the beautiful sun-drenched city to the bleak wintry battlefields. Narratively, the story flows with an endearing lyricism. And musically, the songs bring an attractive new flavor to this oft-told 19th-century classic.

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