'Cyrano': Peter Dinklage Shines in a Beautiful, Well-Crafted Update of a Classic Love Story
Updated: Jan 24
When most people think of Cyrano de Bergerac, they tend to think of a man with a big nose. While Edmond Rostand's original play of the same name has spawned countless other iterations of the classic tale, it almost always seems to come back to his nose. With Cyrano, the latest retelling of the story from Joe Wright and writer Erica Schmidt, however, the character has been re-imagined as a man of short stature, as opposed to the traditional depiction of him. As a result, we are able to see the story in a slightly different way, and it exposes the romantic core of the film in a grand, bombastic way. On top of this, the film is a musical, featuring songs from Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. The songs blend the modern style of the Dessners' other work, while also layering in beautiful string arrangements that fit the film's time period. These elements come together to create a lovely retelling of one of the most well-known works of literature, and is one of the most heartfelt films of the past few years.
Joe Wright has never been a director that I have been too enthusiastic about. I feel that he has a knack for creating visually stunning films, but there's not always a lot of substance to them. While his earlier films, specifically Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, are quite affecting, just about everything else I've seen from him feels lacking. After The Woman in the Window, I was beginning to give up hope that Wright would ever deliver another film on the level of his earlier successes. Thankfully, this film is fully in his wheelhouse, as it allows him to tell yet another love story, and to showcase his flair for crafting striking visual elements. This is his best film in years by a long shot, and manages to play to his strengths without feeling like he is resting on his laurels. I also have to applaud him for managing to make this film in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it couldn't have been an easy feat given some of the larger setpieces of the film.
When it comes to period pieces, it is often fair to assume that if nothing else, the costuming and production design will be excellent. This is most certainly the case here, especially in regards to the latter. The film was shot on location in Sicily, and uses the city of Moto to create a beautiful landscape for the narrative to unfold. The set design is so eye-catching and full of specific details that bring so much to the world of the film. The film is also well shot, with frequent Joe Wright collaborator Seamus McGarvey providing some excellent cinematography. The framing and composition are quite great, and the way he captures some of the larger dance numbers and battle scenes are impressive. He also uses light quite well, and incorporates it into the visual storytelling nicely. I am a bit conflicted on the use of color, however. On one hand, it's used nicely in terms of the costuming and set dressing, but the color grading is a bit wonky at times. I do think the stark contrast between the more vibrant nature of the scenes in the city versus the nearly monochrome nature of the scenes at war is an interesting choice, but certain scenes have a strange sheen to them that I just didn't care for all that much. It didn't take me out of the film too much, but it did stick out to me a little.
Of course, the film's greatest asset is Peter Dinklage's knockout performance as Cyrano. Dinklage has long been one of my favorite actors, and this is easily one of the best performances he has ever given. He embodies both the bravado and insecurity of the character with such precision, and is absolutely charming all throughout the film. From the moment he first appears in the film, he has such a magnetic presence and gives such a fully realized portrayal of Cyrano that stands out from other versions of the character. I am always impressed when an actor can convey so much with just a look, and this is one of Dinklage's greatest strengths. You can't help but sympathize with him, yet it never feels like he is doing too much. He is able to show so much just from his facial expressions, which alongside his clear gift for handling verse and the more flowery language of the film, makes for a phenomenal performance. I hope he is able to break into the Best Actor line-up at the Oscars, but given how MGM has been dropping the ball when it comes to marketing the film, I'm worried he will be snubbed. I hope that he gets the nod, though, because he does such an excellent job here.
But it's not just Peter Dinklage that turns in a great performance. Haley Bennett is great as Roxanne, and brings a sense of longing and naivete to the role. While she is essentially playing the ingenue, she balances it with an air of cleverness. The character does feel a tiny bit shallow, but Bennett is so dialed in that she is able to give the role a bit more depth. Kelvin Harrison Jr. also continues to prove that he is one of our finest and most versatile young actors, and plays the wide-eyed innocence of Christian to great effect. It's a bit of a thankless role, but Harrison brings so much to the table that elevates
Aaron and Bryce Dessner's involvement in writing the music for the film was one of the aspects I was most excited about going into this. I am a huge fan of their band The National, and their recent collaborations with Taylor Swift have been great as well. Something about their music really clicks with me, and their work here is no exception. It retains elements of their distinct style, while also featuring some gorgeous string arrangements. The lyrics from The National lead singer Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser are also great, and jumped out at me many times throughout the film. The songs are more modern, which serves as a bit of a juxtaposition to the film's period setting, but the two mix together better than one might expect. They may not be the world's catchiest songs, but I absolutely adored them and feel that they fit the film perfectly.
The musical numbers are all excellent, and feature some great choreography. On top of that, the singing is excellent, with Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett both standing out for me on this front. The film's opening number "Someone to Say" starts things off incredibly, and drew me into the world of the film. I was also taken by the number "Every Letter", which is full of beautiful imagery, and illustrates the central conflict of the film quite nicely. I also must mention the number "Wherever I Fall" which is a heartbreaking song where some of the soldiers discuss the possibility that they may die in battle. The numbers all help move the story along, and feel so integral to the film as a whole. They're quite well done, and I was quite impressed by them.
The film originated as a stage musical, and there are moments where it shows. While I would say that Erica Schmidt's screenplay is mostly good, it does have moments that would likely work better on stage. It is more of a melodrama, and while the moments that lean more into that style do work for the most part, they also feel a little too much at times. I appreciate that the film does feel faithful to the source material in terms of structure and plot, but it does feel like some elements from the musical don't translate to the screen as well as they should. In addition to that, the pacing does feel a little off, which is partially an issue of the film's script, but also the editing. I don't think the editing is bad overall, but does feel oddly paced at times, and there were a couple of weird choices that took me out of the film a little bit. The editing does shine in the film's musical numbers and the film's excellent swordfighting sequences, but beyond that, it leaves a little to be desired.
I had a feeling that I was going to like this film quite a bit, but I was not expecting to practically fall in love with it. Yes, it is a little cheesy at times, but I can't help it, this is film is just so lovely and endearing. The music, the visual elements, the performances, all of it come together to make a refreshing and beautiful take on a classic story. I must admit that I was rather moved by the end of the film, and was surprised by how strong of a reaction I had to it. I definitely have some nitpicks, but the way this film made me feel makes up for quite a few of them. It is so beautiful on both a technical and narrative level, and is so full of heart. It knocked me out harder than I was expecting, and is one of the most delightful films I've seen in quite some time.