Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Haley Bennett, Peter Dinklage, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
Perhaps as an act of – ahem – atonement for his wretched Winston Churchill pic Darkest Hour, Joe Wright retreats to his comfort zone of romance, corsets and, all right, warfare for his latest venture; a musical adaptation of Erica Schimidt’s Broadway telling of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano. Schmidt herself takes screenplay duties, and the whole is peppered with original songs by Aaron and Bryce Dessner (better known to some as chart-topping band The National). It’s arrived at just the right moment, with musicals very much reborn in the public consciousness following the high-profile releases of In the Heights, Spielberg’s West Side Story and Tick, Tick… Boom all within a few months of each other.
And why not? In these ceaselessly unprecedented times of war, disease and sundry horsemen, why not flee to cinema’s glossiest form of escapism?
Cyrano certainly fits within Wright’s overtly theatrical wheelhouse and, fittingly, much of it’s opening takes place on a stage. Haley Bennet’s well-to-do Roxanne sits stage-side in a box as a pantomime thespian has his delusions of grandeur torn to ribbons by the lyrical tongue of famed guardsman Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage). Roxanne and Cyrano are life-long acquaintances and he carries a fiery torch of love for her that he dare not speak. That same night, however, Roxanne catches the eye of tongue-tied romeo Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). Cyrano – a famed poet – offers Christian his words so that the lovelorn young man can woo Roxanne’s heart, in effect making him Cyrano’s proxy.
Accents range from British to Australian, though the characters are all supposed to be French (no matter; it worked in earnest for The Last Duel and many others before it), while the action all seems mainly based in… Sicily maybe? Best not dwell on it. The very lack of specificity lends it a fantasy piece’s universality, and the melting pot extends to the cast most pleasingly.
Bennet and Dinklage acquit themselves admirably. Bennet has been one of the cannier actors on the circuit for over a decade now (her work in Swallow, for one, is impeccable), and it’s high-time her star shone brighter. She certainly brings gusto to Roxanne, along with the requisite wide-eyed fragility when required. Dinklage, of course, has been peerless for even longer, and his Cyrano mixes wit and pathos in a manner that both recalls his Game of Thrones highlight Tyrion and often times trumps him. Of his big screen efforts, it’s his most generous since The Station Agent.
Elsewhere things fall a little less favourably, but not to the overwhelming detriment of the whole. Harrison, Jr. is lumbered with a feckless character who fails to curry the audiences’ sympathies, and it gives him little room to manoeuvre. We know too little of him before the scheme to con Roxanne takes effect, other than his readiness to deceive only to regret too late. Ben Mendelsohn, similarly, is rather rote as the piece’s moustache-twirling baddie De Guiche. It’s something Mendelsohn could sleep-walk through and, aside from the added complexity of having to sing most of his villainy, he does.
But it’s not so much that these actors fail as they are failed by the piece. And it’s a wider-reaching problem. Key beats are glossed over and, in his rush to play dextrously with the camera, Wright fails to adequately introduce half his players. This becomes a weakness especially when it comes to Roxanne and Christian’s immeasurable love-at-first-sight connection, which never feels believable because the moment itself is too fleeting and it’s remnants too shallow. This sense of lacking is something that Cyrano constantly struggles against.
Then there are the songs. The best of them is an earnest and sentimental ode from soldiers bidding their final farewells before heading to the front lines. Rather conspicuously, it is given to three unnamed characters who exist in a little island to the side of the rest of the action. The song – “Wherever I Fall” – and it’s treatment suggest that Wright might actually have preferred to make a musical about the Great War all along. Elsewhere, the numbers given to Bennett, Dinklage, Mendeolsohn and Harrison, Jr. are fine enough. Some pompy, some a little dirgy, melodious but far from memorable. Credit to each of them for giving them their all though, even if their all sometimes isn’t quite enough.
Occasionally a song does misfire. When Roxanne is disappointed by Christian’s inadequate declarations of love, for instance, her show-stopper “I Want More” overdoes it. As the character has been rather flimsily set up, it has the effect of making her seem churlish and diva-like. It wasn’t the intention but darling, your privilege is showing.
Perhaps Wright’s attention was elsewhere. An alleyway fight sequence stitched together to look like one continuous take is superlative stuff and the film finds a general fervour whenever battle is on the horizon. Otherwise, this is a strangely stifled romantic affair; the central conceit too riddled with deceptions that even the characters themselves find distasteful. And, in a holdover from Darkest Hour, Wright seems eager to shroud his actors in as much gloom as possible (though this does contrast sublimely with the white-on-white coda).
At it’s best, Cyrano is an ode to the power of words; to cast spells, to evoke emotion, to elicit responses of all kinds. They are weapons in their own right (as the Monkey Island-style stage-bound swordplay at the top of the picture attests). And words held back amount to a method of self-harm. One’s ability with language seems irrevocably tied to one’s status, also. Without Cyrano’s words to embolden him, Christian wouldn’t stand a chance. A tale of incomplete men and a woman painted as too particular to fully accept either of them.
And they say romance is dead.