Roxanne and Cyrano

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.

Kelvin Harrison Jr as Christian
Kelvin Harrison Jr as Christian

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

I Care a Lot

Peter Dinlage and Rosamund Pike

You used to see plenty of films like I Care a Lot in 1990s. In the slipstream of Quentin Tarantino’s first burst of success there was a glut of movies with a “who’s zooming who” plot playing out in an “only in the movies” universe of smart talk, skull-cracking violence, hot women, cool men, gunplay and cars. Joe Carnahan – one of the best of the bunch of writer/directors working the territory – summed it up well in the title of his 1998 debut, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. There was a real sense of writers and directors having a lot of fun. Sometimes more than the audience.

I Care a Lot’s writer/director J Blakeson is clearly enjoying himself with a bait and switch plot that seems at first knockings to be a satire centred on Marla Grayson, a money-grabbing lawyer (Rosamund Pike) working a legal guardian scam – possibly an analogue for a wider critique of the corrupt financial system? Then, as Grayson strongarms her latest victim – sparky, rich retiree Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) – into a care home against her will and proceeds to strip her assets, Blakeson shift us towards what looks like a wrongful-imprisonment thriller, with Peterson/Wiest the focus.

And then he switches again. There’s more to this hale and hearty senior boomer than weekly aqua-aerobics classes, it seems. To the rescue, enter Peter Dinklage as a cross between a Bond villain and a white knight, extravagantly over-enunciating as all the best bad guys do.

At this point any workaday scam artist keen to clean up quick and then move on to the next mark would probably back off, but we’ve left the real world and are now breathing pure genre, though Blakeson’s screenplay gives Grayson a few speeches attempting to pull her character back down to earth. Instead of backing off, the lawyer’s naked pride impels her onward, the rest of the movie being essentially a godalmighty tussle between Grayson and Dinklage’s Roman Lunyov to see who’s top dog, with Jennifer as their trophy.

Blakeson pulled off similar plot gymnastics with his feature debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, with two reveals that made a kidnap thriller into something tasty enough to have spawned two foreign-language remakes (no doubt helped by the fact that the film can be made for nothing, requiring only three actors and a single set).

Chris Messina
An overdressed Chris Messina

In the sort of devious-female role familiar from Gone Girl, Pike is particularly well cast as the avaricious take-no-prisoners savagely, bobbed lawyer, and in 1990s style she’s a lipstick lesbian to boot, with her inamorata (and useful sounding board) Fran played by Eliza Gonzaléz, who has little to do except stand around and look hot (mission accomplished).

The film’s best scenes are all two handers – Pike trading threats with Chris Messina as the stubbly sexist and over-dressed lawyer sent in by Dinklage’s Lunyov to spring Peterson; Pike against Wiest, the old dear hissing malevolently; Pike against Dinklage, badassery indexes going off the scale.

So, an aggressive black-comedy thriller farce of the old school, brilliantly written and played and moving fast because it knows that there’s stiff competition in the archive, and because contemplative musing isn’t what this sort of film is offering.

More of Wiest would have been a real plus, especially since this is a film all about women having agency – which you couldn’t often say about 1990s examples of the genre – but she never overplays her hand as the charming senior with a spitfire alter ego. Same goes for Dinklage, who after years of Game of Thrones knavery could phone in these big characters full of flowery eloquence but doesn’t.

And if it takes its foot off the pedal a touch as it enters its last 20 minutes or so, that’s OK too, the entertainment has been had. This film is a lot of fun.

© Steve Morrissey 2021