The newly released musical drama, Cyrano, the latest reworking of Edmond Rostand’s well known 1897 play, is an inventive and bold venture that could easily have been a complete disaster. Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted for film so many times, from versions that simply recreate the stage play, to modern revisions such as Roxanne and The Truth About Cats and Dogs, that a new attempt must take pains to stand out and provide something new. Cyrano does so, first of all, by remaking the story as a musical, something it first presented as an off-Broadway play in 2018.
Second, it has replaced the main character’s iconic imperfection and personal burden, the famous oversized nose, with another physical difference: dwarfism. Cyrano himself, as played by popular actor Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones, Station Agent) is otherwise essentially the same as Rostand’s original swashbuckling soldier-poet, a role that the film makes unexpectedly believable.
Cyrano is not, strictly speaking, a modernisation; it is set in the 16th century, and takes great pains with authentic costume and set design, due largely to the work of brilliant and multi-award-winning production designer Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, Anna Karenina, Darkest Hour). However, at times the film seems to ride the line between period and modern sensibilities. The entire movie is visually impressive, not only for its design but for the creative and very effective cinematography, which adds particular impact and believability to the requisite fencing scenes. The plot and dialogue, however, are streamlined and given a more contemporary tone, omitting most uniquely 17th-century or Parisian references and simplifying the language.
The familiar central story of a peculiar love triangle is told confidently and with great warmth. The strong title character is backed competently by Haley Bennett as Roxanne, whom Cyrano loves hopelessly from afar; and the suitably comely Kelvin Harrison (Luce, Trial of the Chicago 7) as Cyrano’s fellow soldier and unacknowledged rival, Christian. The love story dominates the film, while the additional material which provides Cyrano’s back story is pared down to a large extent. This means omitting some favourite scenes, such as the well known situation of Cyrano’s responding to the mockery of his appearance by ridiculing himself more cleverly than his tormentor. The duelling scenes, however, are kept largely intact and with their original verve, despite some simplifications. The film keeps up a fairly quick pace, and succeeds in being continually entertaining.
This film adaptation is definitely not without flaws. To begin with, the decision to turn the play into a musical is not an unqualified success. When the film’s musical passages work, they work extremely well – for example, when the lovelorn Cyrano expresses his feelings in music; or in a beautiful scene, an original bit created by the screenwriter, of doomed soldiers on the battlefield recalling their loved ones. However, several of the song and dance scenes add little to the story, as when minor characters needlessly explain their motivations to music.
Second, very little is done to give Roxanne more depth than other adaptations, make her less of a shallow romantic defined entirely by her looks, and more of a legitimate object of Cyrano’s affections – especially unfortunate in a script written by a woman – and in fact, some of her key scenes from the original play are omitted altogether. The character of Christian, on the other hand, is made a bit less stupid and more likeable, changing the dynamic between himself and Cyrano in an interesting way.
Third, the efforts to update and simplify the dialogue are usually effective but result in the loss of some of the play’s better moments. In a few instances, the changes are notably careless (do not have a 17th-century cadet in a period drama use the word “OK”). On one or two occasions, changes in the dialogue are meant as reinterpretations of the characters’ real feelings or intentions, a bold move with such a well known classic, but legitimate. Perhaps the best and most thoughtful reinterpretation is in the very final scene, in which the change of only a few words gives a different and deeper meaning to a well known line of Cyrano’s, and to the character himself.
But to get to the heart of the matter, what makes this film work is primarily Peter Dinklage’s remarkable performance as Cyrano. The versatility, subtlety, and expressiveness the actor brought to other roles are expanded here, and he makes the character come to life, perfectly plausible as the scholarly swordsman, and quietly intense and heartbreaking as the lover in the service of his own rival. The performance of the generally excellent ensemble cast is held together by his interaction with them. Dinklage is not an outstanding singer and has an unusual voice (strikingly similar to that of Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies), which stands out rather starkly in comparison to the rest of the cast. This ought to be a problem in a musical, but in the context of the film it works, due to a combination of appropriate direction, and Dinklage’s fearless and vulnerable delivery; his distinctive voice simply sets him apart as the central and dominant character. Essentially, we have an innovative and clever but slightly imperfect idea from screenwriter Erica Schmidt, properly developed and expanded upon by talented director Joe Wright, and finally brought fully to life by its lead actor’s moving performance.