There have already been numerous film versions of this play. The famous Gérard Depardieu movie from 1990 is actually the seventh cinema adaptation, eighth if you include Electric Dreams.
In fact the mention of that last film nicely highlights a key trend here, because most of the productions of this we have seen, especially in the last three decades, have similarly put it in a modern setting of some sort or another. This might be because back in 90 Depardieu and writer/director Jean-Paul Rappeneau effectively closed the book on traditional movie versions of this play but whatever the reason, filmmakers have generally steered away from the original 17th century setting. In this sense this new film is doing something quite different in doing something quite conventional.
The initial angle here is that this is a musical. This in itself is not new, there have been song and dance Cyrano de Bergeracs in various mediums before. This one originated in a modest off Broadway production by Erica Schmidt, starring Schmidt’s husband Peter Dinklage who also takes the lead here. Interestingly the female lead in that stage version was Haley Bennett, again appearing here, and she is married to Joe Wright who in turn is directing this film. One might assume that the speculative discussions around both of these productions happened over domestic meals and Sunday walks in the park then, but either way it is the casting of Dinklage that truly sets this apart.
In the original tale hero Cyrano has trouble finding love because he is ugly, specifically in relation to the size of his nose (the Steve Martin film Roxanne really, really lent into this). Here though it is not because of his facial features but because of his achondroplasia. With her show Schmidt spoke of the problem of the actor taking off the prosthetic nose after they had performed the part and how this undermined the message of the narrative. Certainly with having Dinklage as the legendary lyrical swashbuckler, much is said about common prejudice and disability in a way it wasn’t before. In this sense it may have a historical setting but it also has a valuable contemporary message. Peter Dinklage has done many roles where his size is irrelevant (clearly not Game of Thrones) but this is one of those movies where it is a part of the plot and these films have always done much for representation (clearly not Elf). Even aside of all of this though, there is one other aspect that any adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac absolutely has to get right, and this movie nails it.
Neo-romantic playwright Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the all time great love stories. It may not be as well known as Casablanca, Wuthering Heights or Romeo & Juliet but it is on the same scale with its passion and yearning. Never was there a tale of more woe than Roxanne and her Cyrano. Not to bring this through in a film like this would be the greatest crime of all, but even more than he did with 2005’s Pride & Prejudice and certainly more than he did with Atonement, Joe Wright really ramps up the beautiful heartache. As a sucker for this kind of stuff I have to say that Cyrano is just lovely. Dinklage is a really strong romantic lead and you can see the pain and devotion in his eyes in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. That magnificently expressive face of his is put to wonderful use. Roxanne is a tricky character to pull off because she can come across as immature and flighty but Bennett is brilliant too. Christian, the third wheel in this story played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is a little more forgettable but that it precisely what the character demands so kudos here as well, I guess. (I’m being mean, he is good.) Ben Mendelsohn and Monica Dolan offer strong support as well and I’d have been excited to see the musical cameo from musical hero Glen Hansard but I’m shamed to say I didn’t realise it was him.
In terms of the songs, they are fine. Like the budget for the film, they are sufficient for what is needed but perhaps a little limited. I am not sure how much they add but crucially they take nothing away and I have been humming along to a few having found them on Apple Music since. Aaron and Bryce Dessner of rock band The National are no Lin Manuel Miranda but neither have they thrown away their shot.
If I’m honest I’ve had a hot and cold relationship with Joe Wright’s work before; as indicated earlier I didn’t get on with all of Atonement and The Darkest Hour had inconsistent moments of brightness. I love Hanna though so after the particular disappointment of his last film The Woman in the Window, I am thrilled to say he is back on form. All of his films look great but sometimes it is all just surface, Anna Karenina being strongest examples of this. In light of the focus of this story though I am pleased to say that irrelevant of how it appears to the eye, this one has real heart. I definitely recommend it.
The Ripley Factor:
My earlier observations on the character notwithstanding, Roxanne is a headstrong woman with exceptional wit and great loyalty to her friends, Cyrano especially. She is also, to some extent, standing up against the expectations of a patriarchal society which is something that is initially explored in this film before moving on and only peripherally dealing with the consequences of this. She is less headstrong but less passive and less self destructive than Juliet, Cathy or even Ilsa Lund and as such is actually one of classic literature’s better heroines.
Cyrano is in cinemas from 23rd Feb