Joe Wright’s musical adaptation is an overall winning take on the classic romance
Some stories can prove to be so timeless that one can never grow tired of seeing endless adaptations of it. This is certainly the case with the story of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which seems to have an ensuing adaptation every couple of years. This has been particularly the case in the 2010s as the narrative was placed in a high school setting. However, the most recent take on the romantic story sets the narrative in the original 17thcentury, albeit this time as a musical.
Cyrano (2021) takes place in 17th century Sicily. Roxanne (Hayley Bennett) is at the center of a romantic dispute, between the handsome, but simple guardsman Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and her longtime friend, the witty, but short Cyrano (Peter Dinklage). Cyrano soon finds out that Christian is in love with Roxanne, and in order to find a way to express his love for her, he agrees to write love letters to her for Christian.
Cyrano is directed by Joe Wright and adapted from Dinklage’s wife Erica Schmidt’s musical that played off-Broadway in 2019. With many Broadway-to-film adaptations, it can prove hard to break out of the molds of a stage and fully utilize one’s cinematic freedoms. This is not the case with Wright, who returns to collaborate with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for the first time since 2016. Wright takes pleasure in each song and dance sequence, taking advantage of a fantastic choreography to have his camera sweep through unconventional angles. McGarvey also delights in a very bright Sicilian setting, playing around more with tonality than shadows. Wright bravely decides to have long, tracking takes, this helps imbue Cyrano with the feeling of watching something live, while not becoming static.
Wright’s visual aesthetic is as winning as ever, yet his handling of the emotional sides of Cyrano also come to par. Being already practiced in period films about repressed romance with the likes of Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), Wright expertly crafts heart-wrenching scenes of emotions appropriated for another’s benefit. I was pleased that the musical elements did not lead to a more heightened or exaggerated dramatic tone either, Wright is correct in playing for subtlety and patience with his characters, helping provide an important romantic crescendo.
Wright is of course aided with a strong trifecta of performers. Dinklage, who originated the role in the musical, is insuperable in the lead role. There have been countless takes on the pains of Cyrano de Bergerac by other performers, yet few like Dinklage. The American actor not only balances the key internal struggles and suffering romance of the character, but also weaves in humor and narrative heft that help counteract cheesier aspects of the story. Dinklage is an actor the screen demands to see more; so much so, that a monumental role such as Cyrano ends up being too small for him. Surrounding Dinklage, Bennett and Harrison Jr. are winning enough as the two sides of Cyrano’s plight. Bennett has the difficult job of embodying an object of desire while also trying to inject a sense of individuality, and she is largely successful in the balance. As for Harrison Jr., he is right not to go down the path that Christians of other adaptations have done, of playing the character as stupid. Harrison Jr. shows a Christian who is simply a normal guy, giving more merit to Cyrano for his wit and complexity than demeaning his character into a clown.
The greatest fault of Cyrano may lie in the musical aspects themselves. The melodies are catchy and pretty enough, but the lyrics leave something to be desired in key numbers. For a story about the lyrical prowess of its lead character, in climactic numbers you expect more complexity than what Cyrano delivers. In a similar vein, the epilogue of the film seems stripped of a necessary layering, instead choosing a speedy simplicity that works against Cyrano’s central theme. This latter aspect is the most upsetting, as the resolution had been built up so beautifully during the rest of the film. To have simply spent a bit more time with its finale would have reaped the great rewards that Cyrano deserved.
Overall, Cyrano is a winning adaptation of the ubiquitous story. Wright does a fabulous transference from stage to screen and creates a visual marvel. The performers led by a fantastic Dinklage are a privilege to behold on screen, but their efforts are somewhat undercut by stumbles in the film’s key moments. Sadly, to have such missteps in important cogs of a romantic story can bring down the memorability and praise that such hard and meritorious work deserves.