If the tricky bit in musicals is the moment when people transition into song, what about the quasi-musical? Cyrano demonstrates that the problem isn’t doubled but squared – every time Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett or Kelvin Harrison Jr burst into song, it’s a genuine shock. The fact that the actual songs are a bit hit and miss is an added burden.
In Edmond Rostand’s original story, Cyrano de Bergerac is the warrior poet with a massive nose and effortlessly spectacular language skills who falls badly for Roxanne, his ideal of femininity, but then helps a fellow soldier – handsome but dim Christian – woo her with his words, knowing that he has no chance himself.
This version keeps all the particulars in place – the key characters of brilliant Cyrano, flighty Roxanne and strapping Christian, the setting in the sort of duelling-capes-and feathery-hats France that Gene Kelly might inhabit – with just one minor tweak. This Cyrano (Dinklage) is blighted by his diminutive stature rather than a massive conk.
Talking of rivals, this film has a few. The gold-standard 1950 one starring José Ferrer, the 1990 one starring a very well cast Gérard Depardieu, and Steve Martin’s Roxanne from 1987, not forgetting the three-hour TV movie starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. None of these is a musical. If you’re looking for one, how about the ill-fated Cyrano de Bergerac based on Rostand’s original material, written by Lesley Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn. It was due to open in London in 2006, but didn’t, then was meant to debut in Spain in 2009, but didn’t. It finally opened in Tokyo, closed three weeks later, then re-opened again in Osaka for three days before disappearing again. Other musical adaptations have fared slightly better – a 1973 one with music by Michael J Lewis and a libretto by Anthony Burgess, or the Dutch one from 1991, which managed a run on Broadway but didn’t manage to produce a cast recording of the show.
This 2021 version started life on Broadway, and is written by Erica Schmidt, aka Mrs Dinklage. The songs are by the Dessner brothers, Aaron and Bryce, with lyrics by man-and-wife team Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, all of whom are connected with the band the National. As said, they are a mixed musical bag, at their most cringeworthy early on when Berninger/Besser attempt some lame raps in the Hamilton mould (“tears” and “mirrors” will not rhyme, however hard Peter Dinklage’s silver tongue might try). But the quality of the tunes does improve as the film progresses and they do eventually cease being songs in search of a hook. Overcome is the standout, and is beautifully sung by Dinklage and Bennett, though Wherever I Fall runs it close, Glen Hansard (of the musical Once) popping up to sing a few poignant lines as a soldier writing to his wife on the eve of his death.
For all the many mentions in publicity material that this was shot on the streets and in the ancient buildings of Sicily – and the locations are stunningly photographed by DP Seamus McGarvey – this Cyrano is a stagebound affair, and the more director Joe Wright uses camera movement and overhead shots, gloriously choreographed crowd scenes etc, the more stubbornly stagebound it feels. There’s something in the declamatory performances of all concerned (including the generally unimpeachable Dinklage) which should have been removed in the transition from stage to screen, but hasn’t been.
Kelvin Harrison Jr is a buff, lusty fellow and you can imagine the silly Roxanne going a bundle on his looks, and Ben Mendelsohn turns up as one of those rouged old libertines who means to have Roxanne’s virtue by hook or by crook. Both fine turns, though of course the film isn’t about them. Monica Dolan, as Roxanne’s wise old nurse and chaperone, is also very good, and feels like something out of Shakespeare, lurking as a touchstone in the background the entire time (the real Cyrano was born just after Shakespeare died).
It’s… nice. Damning with faint praise, maybe, but that’s what it is – nicely written, nicely played, nicely sung, good looking, fun enough, clever enough, with songs you can (sometimes) hum and performances that do no wrong. Sunday afternoon fare. The sort of film you’d sit down to watch with the family and then find you’d slept through most of it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022