Director – Joe Wright – 2021 – UK – Cert. 12a – 124m
The short stature of Cyrano de Bergerac makes him believe that no woman could ever love him – not even his beloved friend Roxanne, who he can’t bring himself to tell – out in cinemas on Friday, February 25th
17th Century Italy. Witty and articulate Captain of the Guard Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is never at a loss for words. His rapier wit defeats any opponent, as does his rapier proper should any be foolish enough to challenge him to a duel. Being short in stature, he can’t imagine that any normal sized woman could love him for who he is.
He is therefore unable to confess his love for her to the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett), the woman and lifelong childhood friend for whom he would do anything. So when she falls in love at first sight with Christian (Bashir Salahuddin), a new recruit to Cyrano’s regiment, Cyrano finds himself torn between her rejection and his desire for her to be happy with the man she loves. Unfortunately, this intelligent and free-spirited young woman enjoys nothing more than the literary cut and thrust which Cyrano is able to provide but the inarticulate and out of his depth Christian is not.
Like his Captain, Christian is in love with Roxanne so without knowing Cyrano’s feelings towards her enlists his help in writing love letters and later in talking to her in a balcony scene where Cyrano is feeding him lines to impress her. The closer in physical proximity Christian gets to Roxanne, the more problematic all this becomes. She is falling in love with the looks of Christian and the mind of Cyrano, believing both belong to Christian.
Meanwhile, the not especially well off Roxanne has been advised to marry a wealthy man such as the Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), coincidentally Cyrano’s military superior. She keeps him dangling, but finds him a bore; she’d rather find someone who likes life and poetry.
This was originally a theatre musical with Dinklage, Bennett and others and music and lyrics by various members of the band The National, adapted and directed from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play by Erica Schmidt (Dinklage’s wife), which so captivated Joe Wright that he asked Schmidt to adapt it to turn it into a screenplay for him to direct. Shots of puppetry in the opening scenes in Roxanne’s house immediately suggest this is a Wright film (he grew up in Islington’s Little Angel Marionette Theatre) and shortly afterwards there’s a scene in a theatre in which Cyrano defeats in a duel a man who insults him. Yet this is no mere filmed theatre piece.
The play has Cyrano as a man whose belief his long nose makes him ugly stops him pursuing the love of his life Roxanne. It’s been filmed twice before – in English with Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah (Roxanne, Fred Schepisi, 1987) and in French with Gerard Depardieu (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990). The genius of casting Dinklage in this role is that his diminutive height becomes the impediment that prevents him telling Roxanne of his love – a highly effective device, arguably more so than the play’s original nose concept. Possibly because the actor has lived with this attribute all his life and, consequently, has a wealth of experience on which to draw for his performance, arguably the best thing he has ever done in an already impressive career.
Wright seems to know almost by instinct how to turn this into a movie using the incredible backdrop of picturesque Noto, a town in Sicily found for him by production designer Sarah Greenwood while working an entirely different production. The place is his canvas or, if you will, his series of theatre sets. The film was shot under pandemic lockdown in the town, which had the effect of clearing the streets before shooting or, to return to the earlier metaphor, of providing Wright with a blank canvas on which to work. He’s aided in no small measure by Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, which perfectly captures the atmosphere of the location.
Except that this is not a painting or a theatre play but a movie, and feels like it. Wright stages a fight where Cyrano is jumped by a gang of men in a street which seems made for the scene. Later, when the action turns darker as Cyrano and his regiment, including Christian, are sent to the front line of a war they can’t win in what amounts to a suicide mission, he shoots on what would have been the blackened volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna but which, through unforeseen, freak weather conditions, are covered in snow which merely serves to add to the desolation. A final scene in a convent in Noto is nothing less than heartbreaking.
As if all that weren’t enough, this is also a musical with highly memorable songs. It would have been fine without that element, but that addition raises the proceedings to a whole other level. Terrific choreography graces not only the musical numbers but also, as mentioned, the fight scenes, perhaps reaching its kinetic nadir in shots of the regiment doing musical, sword combat practice in their barracks.
A musical Cyrano de Bergerac sounds like it should have been awful, but the passion and vision of Wright and his collaborators for the material here has produced something extraordinary. A treat, in fact.
Read my alternative review in Reform magazine.
Cyrano is nominated for Best Costume Design in the 2021/22 (94th) Oscars.
Cyrano is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, February 25th.