Hey, remember romantic movies? With happy endings or otherwise? The list of romances I’ve truly liked would need more than one index card to write out, but I hadn’t thought about it lately until I saw the new adaptation of Cyrano and realized some rarely evoked emotions were surfacing. I blame blockbusters.
Even if the latest film from director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour, Hanna) hadn’t been part of my Oscar Quest ’22 (thanks to a lone nod for Costume Design) I would’ve been there for it. Cyrano de Bergerac, that dashing master swordsman and erudite heckler who lets his giant nose stand between him and his true love, has popped up in my path on occasion. For Gen-Xers our easiest entry point was Steve Martin in Roxanne, in which his skillfully jokey fireman with a prosthetic proboscis C.D. Barnes thinks Daryl Hannah couldn’t possibly settle for him. Comics fans my age had the option of the great Classics Illustrated adaptation by Peter David and Kyle Baker. For extra credit I later read Edmund Rostand’s original play as filtered through the 1923 blank-verse translation by poet Brian Hooker. Last year a comics series called Seven Swords pulled him into a League of Extraordinary Gentleman with other artisan duelists from or adjacent to his era. Lots more interpretations are out there waiting for my attention one day.
Now added to the list is Wright’s own, with a screenplay by Erica Schmidt based on her own off-Broadway musical. The highbrow hero and his humongous honker have been supplanted and adapted into the form of Schmidt’s husband, Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage and his “unique physique”, as one friendly character puts it with Cyrano’s approval. The heart of the story and its love triangle remain intact. In historic bring-your-own-accent France, Cyrano is a highly regarded soldier who suffers neither fools nor overactors gladly, but is always happy to make time for locals seeking advice in matters of poetry or love. He brakes even harder for his longtime dear friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett from Hillbilly Elegy), who’s unaware that he carries a torch for her as bright as the sun and ensconced far within where he vows he’ll never let her lay eyes upon it. How could he? According to the day’s mores, “different” looking guys aren’t allowed to hold such hopes and awesome women like her can, should, and will do better. Or so such folks tell themselves, after they’ve let society drum that misbegotten belief into their head too many times.
Cyrano’s penchant for eloquence comes in handy when a young soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr., briefly Fred Hampton in The Trial of the Chicago 7) arrives in Soldiertown and beseeches him for advice. The new guy and Roxanne spotted each other from across a crowded room and have been stricken with a terminal infection of Love at First Sight. Without having even heard him speak, her expectations rocket into the stratosphere as she assumes he’ll be no less than a poetic soul who makes the Muses themselves gnash their teeth over their inadequacy…but dash it all, he’s a fighter, not a writer. Thus does Cyrano, the local poet laureate, offer to ghost-write his love letters to Roxanne. The subterfuge doesn’t sit well with Christian’s conscience at first until he realizes it gets results and Roxanne apparently has never seen her best friend’s handwriting before, unless he’s artistic enough to change his calligraphic fonts. And thus did Rostand’s Christian become the patron saint of nerdy liars in hundreds of teen sex comedies.
For Cyrano their scheme is a double-edged sword. At last he can express his true love for Roxanne in all its rapturous, thesaurus-enriched splendor, but he can’t sign his name to his feels. Cyrano feels like a lot of screenwriters who’ve watched actors receive Oscars for reciting great speeches they wrote. Worse still, Cyrano isn’t even getting paid for it. Other than the slight joy of relieving his self-repression to a limited extent, his only real reward is her delight at his compliments.
As if their love triangle weren’t angular enough, it suffers an intersection from an unwelcome fourth corner. Skulking around the perimeter is the soldiers’ ranking commander, Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn from Rogue One), who’s decided Roxanne should be his whether she likes it or not, and woe betide any interlopers beneath him. “Why should I have to beg / For what everybody wants?” he snarls in his Disney-villain song “What I Deserve” while an angry little guitar simmers in his dishonor. If he gets his way, Roxanne is gonna have to wear that dress and he doesn’t care if it’s wrong or right.
In a crowded field of 2021 musicals, Cyrano is among the select few without any involvement from Lin-Manuel Miranda. No one songwriter should monopolize a genre, but he’s raised the bar awfully high for the current moment. Here the music and lyrics are largely the work of members from The National, a rootsy alt-country band whose jangly, low-pulse SiriusXMU tunes are not my thing. Within the film’s context they uplift just enough to carry the moods along, in particular the seemingly ubiquitous “Someone to Say”, a waltzy encapsulation of yearning and wishing. The actors’ limited ranges are fairly accommodated, though few involved would ever sustain a recording career, apart from three ringers for whom Wright curiously declares an unofficial intermission as they teleport onto the set from nowhere, put on soldier costumes and take turns on “Wherever I Fall”, a trilogy of farewells to their true loves on the eve of their probably imminent deaths. It hurts to realize they’re merely harbingers of the more crucial losses to come.
Like many a stage production adapted to film, Cyrano‘s settings are limited, though the pandemic surely didn’t help. Wright and his crew seem to have rented one Italian castle and shot nearly everything there. The place has some extremely cool architecture and a number of grandiosely carved spaces that divide up well into individual sequences, but it’s still just one location, like that time Joss Whedon and his then-friends performed Much Ado About Nothing in his own fancy house. The biggest locational exception comes late in the film, when Our Heroes are ordered out to the Foreboding Mountains near Battlefield Field to engage with The Enemy, a vaguely large gang of distant shades hiding with their sniper rifles on the far side of Budget-Cut Hill. When they emerge for five seconds of pre-skirmish charging, I’m unconvinced the extras are all flesh-and-blood.
So there’s no staggering four-minute Dunkirk sequence a la Wright’s Atonement. In lieu of that, we’re entreated to a John Wick tracking-shot fight scene pitting Cyrano against ten of the Duke’s minions, faithful to Rostand’s vision in its own way. In every confrontation Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey know exactly which angles flatter Dinklage most and accentuate his swashbuckling acumen. Same goes for quieter scenes where his Dinklage’s prowess weaves a tapestry of emotions, each vying for domination in the more tangled moments where his gentle heart threatens to burst through his stoic facade.
The fates of our three star-crossed nearly-lovers/just-friends are all too familiar for anyone who’s ever doted on someone from afar yet were all too certain they were unworthy for the targets of their affection. Cyrano is the smartest and most accomplished of the three, yet bows to what he’s accepted, however wrongly, as his position in life. Christian is a sweet, earnest guy who in a kinder era would find the right lover, but who doesn’t meet Roxanne’s lofty qualifications. She’s perhaps old-fashioned compared to Concerned Girlfriends in present-day films, but in their era she embodies everything a Good Guy might seek in a woman who sees only the best in him, though she be put on a pedestal and trapped above them both — literally so, in the case of the classic balcony-soliloquy scene. On my way out of the theater I overheard two young ladies debating its believability from the perspective of modern folks who have the superpower of being able to tell when one voice sounds different from another. (Witness the furor whenever an animated series swaps in a replacement voice actor.) The same contrivance seemed equally silly in Roxanne, as no one of sound mind would mistake Steve Martin for Rick Rossovich. It’s easy for us to mock her gullibility, but that’s kind of the point. She wants to believe. Love’s funny like that.
All this ruckus would be two acts shorter if only these three would just talk to each other. Love stories don’t work like that. The issues of poor communication with or without the trappings of poetry, our flawed perceptions of ourselves and of others, and the ways in which external duties can ruin everything continue to confound until the fateful final scene, which has been tweaked a smidgen, though not as drastically as Steve Martin’s Hollywood happy ending. As the players prepare to take their leave, Cyrano’s final expressions makes no mention of the cavalier’s self-prized panache that was front and center in past versions, but they’re a heartbreaking reminder that even a dashing Renaissance man gifted with the most enviable skill sets can get tripped up by his own worst weakness.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: A few other memorable characters from the original play remain accounted for in reduced roles. Bashir Salahuddin (GLOW) is Cyrano’s stalwart comrade-in-arms Le Bret. Peter Wight (the pub owner from Hot Fuzz) is Cyrano’s pastry-chef buddy Ragueneau, who aspires to poetry of a sort but needs help finding his wheelhouse.
Glen Hansard from The Commitments is one of those three singers in whom the camera takes a disproportionate interest during the aforementioned “Wherever I Fall”. Anjana Vasan (We Are Lady Parts) appears briefly as a nurse-nun who prays for Our Hero whether he likes it or not.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Cyrano end credits, though there’s a big “special thanks to everyone who helped complete this film during a global pandemic.” In its own way, yet another era will be remembered forever in art.