Cyrano de Bergerac is a lover and a fighter, but when we meet him for the first time, he engages in brutal theatrical criticism. Played with grace and enthusiasm by Peter Dinklage, Cyrano emerges from a standing crowd to berate a pompous actor and chase him off the stage. With sharp rhymes and a sharp sword, he defends dramatic truth against the powdery smoothing of the lamentable comedian. The public, who had paid to see Cyrano’s victim, however, mostly applauded his humiliation. The few who oppose it are branded as fools, impostors, or outright villains.
Artifice mobilized in defense of authenticity. It’s a paradox as old as art, and one that “Cyrano,” a new musical based on Edmond Rostand’s French chestnut, embraces with risky ardour. Directed by Joe Wright, with songs by members of the National (Bryce and Aaron Dessner wrote the music, with lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser) and a screenplay by Erica Schmidt, this version wears its heart on its ruffled sleeve , continuing its lush, breathless vision of a romance with more sincerity than consistency.
The original Cyrano, first performed in 1897, was a shrewd throwback to seventeenth-century poetic dramas, written in Alexandrian couplets and steeped in lofty, archaic notions of love and honour. Over the decades that followed, the story became familiar through countless variations and adaptations. Cyrano, a soldier who is ashamed of his big deformed nose, is in love with Roxanne, who is in love with a cute little boy named Christian. Cyrano uses his literary talents to woo Roxanne on Christian’s behalf. Each man becomes the representative of the other. “I will make you eloquent and you will make me beautiful,” said Cyrano.
The resulting confusion produces both comedy – a tangle of crossed signals and mistaken identities – and tragedy. Some versions soften or eliminate tragedy, like Fred Schepisi’s sweet “Roxanne” (1987), starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, and Netflix’s recent teenage charmer “The Half of It.” Wright and Schmidt’s “Cyrano,” which was born on stage in 2019, charges the other way, telegraphing his heartache in the lyrics and heading into a death-haunted operatic ending.
Along the way, it provides a few fun times, mostly thanks to Dinklage and Ben Mendelsohn as his conniving and predatory nemesis, the Duke De Guiche. He, too, is smitten with Roxanne (Haley Bennett) and, as a high-ranking military officer, holds the fate of Cyrano and Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in his hands. Mendelsohn excels at playing silky, sadistic villains like this, and he comes across as the perfect foil for Dinklage, whose Cyrano is acerbic, cantankerous, and open-hearted.
His short stature rather than his large nose makes this Cyrano believe himself unworthy of Roxanne, who sees him as a close friend and confidant. She and Christian have an immediate physical spark, effectively conveyed by smoldering stares. Bennett and Harrison do their part to infuse a technically chaste courtship with an element of excitement. His cheeks are in a state of permanent semi-redness, and he expresses a stammering and mute desire.
They nearly overshadow Cyrano’s words, which are meant to provide the conduit for a truer form of love. Rostand’s piece is built on an emotional interpretation of the mind-body problem. Together, Cyrano and Christian make a perfect man – word and image, spirit and flesh, agape and eros – but only insofar as they succeed in deceiving Roxanne. Even if there is only one, it is equally divided between the cerebral dimension and the sensual dimension of love.
At one point, Wright attempts to bridge this gap by staging part of a musical number in Roxanne’s bedroom, where she reads Christian’s letters – that is, Cyrano’s – in a state of hazy ecstasy, pressing the pages against her lips and chest as she falls onto the duvet. The serious absurdity of this sequence, which could have worked on MTV in the early 90s, is representative of the silliness of the film and its desire for sublimity.
A musical should be able to embrace both. But Wright, while a shrewd craftsman, is too committed to good taste to go beyond melodrama or camp. The music strikes a pretty good balance between rock ‘n’ roll economy and show-tune extravagance, though the soundtrack feels like a second-best song album. Only a plaintive hymn sung by soldiers on the eve of battle stands out, in part because its sentimentality has little to do with the central love triangle.
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Somehow this geometry never quite lines up, despite the play of the distribution. Both Bennett and Harrison are reasonably strong singers, and Dinklage’s voice has gritty credibility. He sounds a bit like Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, or a less jaded Leonard Cohen.
He is both the best thing in “Cyrano” and, for that reason, his downfall. From the moment Cyrano steps into the action, his charisma and intelligence shine through, and Dinklage – playful, melancholy, sly – takes ownership of the film. But that means the argument on which the drama depends is over before it even begins.
Rated PG-13. Swoon and swordplay. Duration: 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.