If Wikipedia is to be believed, the earliest filmed adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac is a silent French-Italian co-production from 1923. Since then Rostand’s ode to the power of the written word has been adapted numerous times, few bearing its source’s namesake (appropriate), ranging from a 1959 Samurai version starring Toshiro Mifune (hell yeah) to one from 1984 about a computer that falls in love with a musician.
Joe Wright’s Cyrano features neither Samurai nor sentient computers but compensates with the best Peter Dinklage performance showcase this side of Game of Thrones’ fourth season. Drawing from Erica Schmidt’s 2018 stage musical of the same name, the film introduces its titular warrior poet (Dinklage) by having him publicly humiliate a pompous actor and then effortlessly merc a rude theatergoer in a duel, a spectacular bit of screenwriter wish fulfillment. It’s in these early scenes that Dinklage channels his Tyrion Lannister, all cocky wit bordering on cruelty, bringing a madcap energy that unfortunately dissipates as the film settles into its main plot.
Cyrano is hopelessly smitten with longtime friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett), who in turn falls for inarticulate himbo Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Cyrano offers to ghostwrite Christian’s love letters to Roxanne, a short-sighted contrivance that falls apart whenever Roxanne and Christian converse in real-time. Though quick-witted, the plot dictates that Roxanne be unable to see through the scheme, culminating in an especially meanspirited moment that has her pontificate on the difference between Cyrano and Christian’s “contrasting” writing styles.
Cyrano’s durability speaks to the ways in which the fantasies we build for ourselves so seldom match up with reality. The characters in Wright’s musical inhabit an airy fantasy world in which reality awkwardly struggles to break through. Dancers glide in synchronized unison through spotless streets. There’s a bleached sterility to the whole thing. Even the act of writing is depicted as a frictionless transference from brain to quill, glossing over all the messy revisions, work-shopping, and drab toil. Cyrano is a writer’s fantasy beyond even Aaron Sorkin’s wildest dreams.
Consequently, Cyrano’s introductory duel at first registers as merely fourth-wall-breaking performance art (they’re at a play, after all) before a lethal strike and bloodstain indicates otherwise. Compare this with the laser precision of Spielberg’s recent West Side Story. While stylized, there’s palpable menace in the rival gangs’ choreography and bulldozed, future-less setting; it’s clear from the jump that the Jets and Sharks are playing for keeps.
The songs, likewise, are cozily tasteful to the point of bland. Ben Mendelsohn’s bad guy banger “What I Deserve” is a notable exception, performed in full Emperor Palpatine getup. I wish the rest of Cyrano were as gloriously bonkers. Dinklage is a joy to watch throughout, but too often he’s restricted by the material to glassy-eyed pathos.
And yet I can’t help but root for Cyrano. It’s unapologetically earnest without resorting to the exhausting optimism of a Lin-Manuel Miranda joint. My screening ended with derisive laughter, perhaps warranted, but if the lackluster box office of post-Cats musicals are any indication, Cyrano might be something of an endangered species. I’m going to appreciate them while they’re here.
Runtime: 124 minutes
MPA Rating: PG-13
Streaming: Currently in theaters