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Review: Cyrano – “It all adds up to a very beautiful picture”

“Children need love.  Adults need money.”

These are words spoken to Roxanne (Haley Bennett) in the beginnings of Joe Wright’s latest feature, Cyrano.  It’s the type of cynical version of marriage that so often is portrayed in period pieces – that you must marry for stature or dollars, instead of marrying for love.  And while she is being encouraged to enter into a union with a wealthy Duke (an effectively repulsive Ben Mendelsohn), Roxanne pines for something more; something that sets her heart afire, makes her cheeks flush and pulse race.  

She gets that chance when she sets her eyes upon Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) while at a play.  The longing gaze they share is enough for Roxanne to profess her love for him to her good friend, Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), a captain in the army who as well as possessing talents with a sword is also a master of words.  Upon meeting Christian for himself, Cyrano realizes that he does not have the same capacity for words needed to woo the lovely Roxanne.  He, therefore, agrees to pen correspondence in Christian’s name in order to assist their romance.  The only problem is the words Cyrano is writing come straight from his own heart, as he himself has been in love with Roxanne for as long as he can remember, yet he feels that she could never look past his physical differences and return his adoration.  He is destined to love Roxanne from afar, but in this way he gets to act out the romance he has always dreamed of for himself. 

This musical film version of Cyrano is adapted from the 2019 off-Broadway production that also starred Dinklage and Bennett.  Both, of course, are adapted from the original play Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmond Rostand that was written in 1897, which has had a myriad of different portrayals over the years, including another musical version that ended up earning Christopher Plummer a Tony Award in 1974.  For this version, the music comes courtesy of some members of the Grammy Award winning band The National, Bryce and Aaron Dessner with lyrics from the band’s frontman Matt Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser. 

If you’re familiar with The National’s music, then you’ll find Cyrano’s musical numbers feel somewhat similar.  In fact, even Dinklage’s low register often mimics (though with less nuance and style) what can be found in some of Beringer’s own work.  This is a show with wandering, lyrical music that isn’t terribly grandiose.  With the exception of the song “Someone to Say,” one of the film’s better numbers, there aren’t many choruses or hooks that will leave you humming after you leave the theatre. Much of the music is quite forgettable.  Truthfully, with the exception of a too short, but very welcome cameo in the wartime song “Wherever I Fall” (probably the most emotionally impactful tune) the vocal talents here are a bit lacklustre, though a radiant Bennett is the best of the bunch.  That said, some of the orchestral arrangements are quite beautiful, and I’m more apt to listen to these again than the sung musical numbers.

But Dinklage can be forgiven his vocal shortcomings for the breadth of his acting performance.  The actor shows a range beyond what even his considerable role in Game of Thrones allowed, uncannily portraying Cyrano’s heartbreak and vulnerability.  He is undeniably the reason to seek this film out, and without his charismatic and magnetic performance Cyrano would most certainly fall flat.

Director Joe Wright is no stranger to period pieces, with Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina amongst his list of achievements, and he does create a wonderfully textured atmosphere as well with this film.  It is also not surprising that the film’s lone Oscar nomination comes in the form of Costume design from Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran as everything worn in this movie is stunning and detailed from beginning to end.

It all adds up to a very beautiful picture, and Wright’s decision to have the actors sing live in the film is also certainly welcome.  While, as mentioned, the pieces are not as polished as they likely would have been if produced in a studio and lip-synced on screen, the singing moments feel more natural, even if they are sometimes off-key.  It’s just that the music feels much more intimate than the scale Wright has created, and the tone doesn’t always match.  I would have loved to have experienced the original stage version in a theatre, where perhaps that setting would have created the intimacy the music strives for.

Cyrano for me becomes a difficult film to pin down, and I struggle to decide even how I feel about it.  There is a lot to like here, from the film’s aesthetic, to Dinklage’s masterful handling of this leading role, but it also somehow felt mismatched to me, a bit tonally dissonant.  This prevented me from the full emotional investment that I really needed for the impactful ending to really hit home, because Cyrano, at its core, is fairly bleak despite the rich and beautiful imagery of this romantic package.  That said, Cyrano’s successes I believe outweigh the shortcomings that I felt held it back, and at least this musical re-telling of a familiar tale was willing to take some risks, even if they didn’t all land.

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