Wandering around the wild world of Joe Wright’s Cyrano encompasses the same rampant emotions aligning with one’s first adventure in a figurative time machine. Far enough from Bill and Ted, and certainly a mile or two away from Wright’s more extravagant cinematic ventures (remember Pan?) dabbling in the realistic side of fiction means staying firm to the ground with one’s sense of fantasy. And here, Edmond Rostand’s veritable hero, an icon of chivalry in classic media, has achieved a fascinating level of transcendence. From stage to screen to pages, now back to the screen with an adaptation first made as a musical, the title character is suddenly invigorated with a stronger voice to go with the source’s acerbic wordplay and firm empathy.
That much leads one to wonder, where has this sort of film been hiding all this time? The type of lyrical romp embracing its down to earth attitude without extreme risk? No clear answer here, even when it feels like it had been twenty years since the last smaller scale musical with a large resonance. Within the first twenty minutes, it was too easy to pick up on that, while also learning about Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), as both a character and the intersecting legend. Seen as a roving do-gooder with a heart of gold, he possesses skills to both entertain and frighten a waiting audience. Often, it occurs through the aid of sheer intellect or swordsmanship, or both in one go. But his professionalism and short stature are no match for his overwhelming distraction for romance.
He’s crushing on socialite Roxanne (Haley Bennett), with whom he has a mild history as friends and confidants. Despite a determinable way with words, the soldier cannot seem to express his affections, always losing his confidence before the opportunity arises. His hesitancy ultimately opens a door for Roxanne to confess her infatuation with garrison loyalist Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), while she’s batting off the Duke de Guiche’s (Ben Mendelsohn) aggressive advances. And thus a slow chase, not necessarily a race, against the clock formulates, to set the record straight, amid the lingering thread of a gallant war.
While its very approach to romance muddles about somewhat, Cyrano’s chivalrous laurels respond well to smooth out its wrinkles. Wright recognizes those minor stumbles in Erica Schmidt’s screenplay, invigorating all of those nuanced visual flourishes. Might be all just a conduit to support Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s (C’mon C’mon) minimalist musical libretto, but the combination is effective. The way everything moves around, how characters putter around, never lacks rhythm. It’s all relaxed, yet still graceful, substantial when needed. The brothers Dessner set the tone here with their score, not necessarily a wall to wall tapestry of show-stopping numbers. But more decisive to capture each moment when called for. Whether it’s mere swordplay or exercises in poetry, the music fits almost too well. Perhaps not to Encanto-level earworms, but catchy all the same.
For Wright, it is a very welcome challenge crafting a straightforward musical whose heart soars greatly. And that power transfers over to his leads without concern. Dinklage takes on the iconic de Bergerac, well maintaining his A-game territory. Going beyond merely saying “it was the role he was born to play”, his Cyrano is the character he appeared to have embodied throughout his career. Only now did he have the opportunity to express that desire. Even without much vocal training, he elicits enough charm, physicality, and self-doubt to complete the character.
Especially when pigeonholed in the mediator role between Christian and Roxanne; his sense of conflict is not sugarcoated. It is as sour as the story beat it shares, as it should. Harrison’s soldier role, who brings a finite buoyancy, is not truly seen as a rival to Cyrano’s intents. More of a scholar being taught to fly while the teacher’s wings can’t flex. That does play well to his advantage, the same way Bennett’s controlled diction and poise leave her a mild fireball. Mendelsohn’s makeup-laden baddie gets the short end of the stick, lacking in vocal chops and screen time. And yet, whatever opportunities he possessed to show mild French disdain had me enthralled.
Witnessing Wright’s quiet vision on both a nearly empty theater screen and a much smaller equivalent at home, allowed for my personal focus to latch onto all of those key details, embracing the idea of natural light at any time of day. Of course, trickles of stage lighting emerge when warranted, but never to a point where the staging is compromised. Wright, with DP Seamus McGarvey (Bad Times at the El Royale) and editor Valerio Bonelli (Darkest Hour) riding shotgun are not aiming for bombastic Broadway level production numbers. Instead, they’re cruising by on treating the lyrics like soliloquys. Poetically woven lines meant to profess a singular emotion without the need for a grand display, aside from Dinklage’s intro. The warmth and vibe this soundtrack does bring may invite the concept of a stage show energy, but it needn’t go that far. It stops just a little short of that, for fear of completely losing sight of Rostand’s plot. We skate around the surface, and that’s about it.
And that may be a welcome sight for those who know the story. I never read the original, so it’s fresh ground on my end. Schmidt’s reinvention eventually finds a way to click, aware of the source material and not veering too far off. Perhaps the deeper though provoking pulse of the original story is pulled away through the incorporation of music, and yet Wright keeps the strings held together. With its wide release timing now aiming for around Valentine’s Day, Cyrano looks to capture the moment as well as its lead longs to encapsulate lasting bonds. It’s a bittersweet experience, the former running lead. Oddly fitting for an iconic French mischief maker who now suddenly belongs to off-Broadway. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up)
Cyrano begins its wide release rollout February 11; rated PG-13 for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material, and brief language; 124 minutes.