Audiences, it seems, can’t get enough of Cyrano de Bergerac. The classic 1897 romance from poet Edmond Rostand has been adapted into a long list of eponymous movies, as well as more offbeat rom-coms like Roxanne (1987), The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), The Half of It (2020), and Megamind (2010). (I said what I said.) So how might heralded filmmaker Joe Wright give a fresh sheen to this centuries’ old tale? He makes a musical, stacked with hot stars like Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn. Sadly, a lack of flare and feeling makes these songs ring thin.
Cyrano is not a direct adaptation of Rostand’s play, but a screen translation of Erica Schmidt’s stage musical, which ran in 2018 with Dinklage and Bennett in the leads. In this version, Cyrano de Bergerac is not a man with an outrageously large nose, but a man of short stature. Despite his wit, his high status, his valor in battle, (and his good fortune to look like Peter Dinklage), he is mocked by the upper crust of French society for being short. So, even though his dear friend Roxanne (Bennett) appreciates his poetry and humor, he fears she’d reject him as a romantic suitor. Then a tall, dark, and handsome young soldier catches her eye. Christian (Harrison) is besotted by her but isn’t so great with words. Thus, Cyrano — who can’t stop his poetry or love for Roxanne — agrees to help Christian woo her, by being the romantic voice behind his pretty-boy face. Meanwhile, dastardly aristocrat De Guiche (Mendelsohn) puts in action his own scheme to make Roxanne his trophy wife.
I was overcome with excitement when I heard about this film. First off, the pairing of Dinklage and Bennett seemed promising. Since 2003’s The Station Agent, this riveting leading man can be trusted to pine powerfully, be it in an indie drama or within the epic scope of Game of Thrones. For her part, Bennett is an ingenue on the rise, who awed me with her tender yet terrifying lead role in Swallow. There, she played a trophy wife so trapped by her ennui that she swallows inedible objects for a fleeting sense of control. This part in particular made Bennett a sharp choice for Roxanne, a heroine who refuses to be some idle trophy. Meanwhile, Harrison wowed critics with the one-two punch of Waves and Luce, while Mendelsohn has made a career out of playing deliciously devilish villains.
Wright has helmed some of the most rapturous movie romances of the last 20 years….His Cyrano — I hoped — would be a radiant return to form.
Finally and most powerfully, was the lure of Joe Wright. Sure, he’s had a string of stumbles (the preposterous Pan, the dull Darkest Hour, and whatever the hell The Woman At The Windowwas supposed to be). Still, Wright has helmed some of the most rapturous movie romances of the last 20 years. He gave us his Keira Knightley Trilogy: the swooning Pride and Prejudice, the unapologetically steamy yet grim Atonement, and strange yet seductive Anna Karenina. His Cyrano — I hoped — would be a radiant return to form.
It is not.
Credit: PETER MOUNTAIN 2021 METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES INC.
Though I was eager to swoon, Cyrano did not move me. Or more specifically, its central romance did not. There was one glorious moment, where a singer and his song hit an awesome emotional rhythm that made my eyes quake with tears and left me drop-jawed. Sadly, this was Glen Hansard (Once) is a single verse cameo, not any of the leads who are meant to shoulder this song and dance romance.
It’s a tricky thing to act and sing. Bennett’s voice is pretty and bird-like, which makes for an interesting contrast to Dinklage. He sings with a rocker’s grumble, and even occasionally speak-sings, recalling William Shatner’s songmanship style but with a brooding edge. However, their voices don’t live in the song the way Hansard’s does. It wasn’t until his mid-movie scene that I realized what was missing. It’s that electric connection between singing and emoting. Admittedly the songs are little help. Written by The National’s Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger, and Carin Berninger, they are simply unmemorable. I can recall their vague contents, but not specific lines, nor a catchy hook, or even some big showy moment that might make this movie iconic or at least a meme.
There’s a woeful lack of panache. Wright paints with an enchanting color palette, which brings out the blush in Roxanne’s cheeks and the sparkle in Dinklage’s eyes. Even in scenes of combat, there’s a rushing warmth in the setting and the cinematography, which sweeps through troops to dizzy us. It’s pretty but not dazzling. And the dancing therein is unremarkable. There’s a flurry of emotion, graceful, but somehow unmoving. After the dynamic staging of Anna Karenina in particular, Cyrano feels tame. There’s no extreme physicality that speaks to the heightened fervor of lust and love. There’s nothing as visually challenging as having the lower-class characters slink around backstage, or forcing the heroine to face a foe center stage. There are fight sequences, war, and pages spilled like falling rain. But this falls short of the grandeur and imagination of which Wright has shown capable.
Credit: PETER MOUNTAIN 2021 METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER PICTURES INC.
Awe-striking spectacle (of sight or sound) might have smoothed the rough edges of plot problems. But alas, they do not. So, this Cyrano is not so much a romantic hero as he is a pretentious prick. He’s introduced as a heckler, who interrupts a play to mock its leading man. Then, he invades the stage to steal the scene and ultimately murders a bully in front of a packed house. How this pretentiousness and pompousness is supposed to endear him to the film’s audience — or Roxanne — is a mystery. But perhaps not one greater than how we’re supposed to believe both that Roxanne is as clever as Cyrano insists and also that she’s fooled by Cyrano and Christian’s clumsy ruse. Yes, yes, young love can make us nonsensical beasts and all that. But are we supposed to believe that this supposedly brilliant young woman, who can size up a man’s worth at first glance (as she does with Christian’s honor and de Guiche’s douchiness) can’t recognize her adored friend’s words or even his voice? I can recognize Dinklage’s voice when it pops up in cartoons that I didn’t realize he was in (Hey, The Croods: The New Age). But Roxanne can’t pick it out when he’s a constant in her life and mere yards away?
This might seem nitpicking. But when the magic of a movie musical isn’t sweeping you up rapture and tears, you get snagged on such details. You stare at them coldly, wondering if they’re to blame for why the thrill you sought is just not there. You might will yourself to ignore them, to focus on the familiar faces, the luscious details of luxury and decay, the effort that clearly came into play. But alas, mired in mediocrity, Cyrano gives far too little to love.
Cyrano opens in select theaters on Dec. 31.