Once again, Hollywood attempts to revive the grand romantic musical, mere months after a remake of “West Side Story” premiered. This time, it’s an adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the 1897 French play about a swashbuckling poet with a large nose.
Director Joe Wright’s “Cyrano” is an odd adaptation, a mixture of formal stanzas from the play, new informal dialogue, and musical numbers. What’s important, though, is that it remains genuinely moving in the moments where it matters. There is a moral seriousness at its heart, which renders its sentiment profound rather than saccharine. And despite some early tonal fumbling, its scaled-back human moments work beautifully.
Peter Dinklage takes on the titular role, substituting the traditional character’s anxiety about his nose with resentful insecurity over his dwarfism. Cyrano is madly in love with his childhood friend, Roxane (Haley Bennett), but just when he’s prepared to tell her how he feels, she reveals that she’s smitten with a handsome guardsman, Christian Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).
Cyrano reluctantly becomes a go-between for the young lovers, going so far as to volunteer as ghostwriter for inarticulate Christian to send worthy love letters to Roxane. Thus begins a tragic deception, as Roxane falls in love with the mind behind the letters, convinced the writer’s face is that of the beautiful Christian.
Wright’s painterly style gives Cyrano a fairy-tale sheen, the gentle pastel surroundings reflecting the earnestness of the story’s heart. Cyrano is a cynical man, but his cynicism isn’t the dominant tone in the end.
“They say light is the soul of a holy place,” he muses, standing in shabby rags of self-inflicted poverty in a pristine convent. “It’s designed to be enough beauty to just let go.” Whether he can achieve that self-forgetfulness is another matter.
If you’ve not already seen this version of “Cyrano,” you probably have no idea it’s a musical. I do sympathize with the film’s marketing team, as the film is such an odd mix of parts, romantic, dramatic, literary, emo angst-fest, stylized period piece. How to pitch it to audiences? Still, it seems an odd choice to conceal that most of the film is spent as the cast sing moody ballads penned by the indie-rock band The National.
The songs are seldom witty, but in tone they do a pretty good job of reflecting the yearning and melancholy at the heart of the story, more so as the film goes on. Early scenes struggle to hit the right note (especially Cyrano’s introduction), serving up the sentiment in dollops, which means the film is occasionally too sweet, occasionally imbalanced. But overdoing it is what musicals are all about.
I prefer this sort of totally committed melodrama to an understated “realist” musical like “La La Land” (which did have its charms). The opposite danger is to feel more like a glitzy and overproduced perpetual music video (a weakness of “The Greatest Showman”), and there are moments — particularly as “Cyrano” attempts to interject sexuality into letter-writing — where this is the case. But its excess is anchored by some surprisingly genuine character moments where the story slows down, strips away the scenery, and lets the performances shine.
Bennett is excellent as the beautiful Roxane, both sweet and coquettish. Cyrano, the man, is most appealing when he’s the irascible and witty literary critic, rather than a prodigy swordsman. Dinklage is well cast as a hangdog intellectual so caught up in his own words and metaphors, so entangled in a false narrative of his own making that he can’t accept happiness when it’s offered to him. If the Cyrano of the play bragged of his “panache,” it’s appropriate that this introspective and angry cinematic Cyrano would more honestly blame his “pride.”
While Cyrano drops hints that he’s angry at God during his opening number, his real antagonist is himself. He is terrified of “the world,” even as he brags of his independence, that he will “follow no one.” Ironically, his paranoid concern for reputation means he’s more dependent than anyone else on the fickle whims of society.
Hyperfocused on his short stature, Cyrano is blind to the fact that he’s not alone: everyone feels somehow inadequate to be loved. The film gains great strength when it shifts its focus away from the primary leads, both characters a bit selfish — to an endearing supporting cast. There’s Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the charmingly naive and — “What’s that word for when you’re bad at expressing yourself?” “Inarticulate?” “That’s it!” — rather stupid Christian. His straightforward sense of honor and justice contrast with Cyrano’s “coded” and cynical sophistication. Christian’s artless humility counterbalances Cyrano’s mighty pride — and yet aiding the guileless Christian humanizes Cyrano.
This tendency to elevate “nobodies” is apparent in other scenes as well. On a battlefield, a series of nameless and incredibly normal-looking soldiers sing their final letters to family, underscoring how every person, no matter how unlovely or anonymous, has a secret sorrow or romance in their souls.
The final small but important part is played by a convent sister who, near the end of the film, is determined to convert Cyrano. When he grandly tells her he will allow her to pray for him, she responds, “I have not waited for your permission.” Cyrano has been angry at God for a long time, too proud to accept grace. This young woman forges right past his permission to plead God on his behalf.
“Cyrano” is unlikely to work for everyone. It’s thoroughly committed to a series of creative choices that don’t sit entirely comfortably cheek by jowl. But this is an emotional spectacle that is also determined to tell a morally true story. That’s rare.
“Cyrano” is playing in select LA-area theaters and is available via streaming. For more information, visit Unitedartistsreleasing.com/Cyrano