“Cyrano,” director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Erica Schmidt’s musical of the same name that’s based in turn on the classic 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” opens not with its titular character, but with the object of his affections, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). Roxanne has been invited to attend a play by De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), an egotistical but wealthy duke who wants to marry her. As Roxanne flits about her room, taking her time getting dressed to the frustration of her chaperone, Marie (Monica Dolan), it becomes clear very quickly that she wants to go to the theater, but isn’t interested in the duke himself at all; she wants to marry for love. The subdued yet soaring romantic nature of “Cyrano” is established not long after that, when Roxanne gets into the carriage with the De Guiche and her escorts. As the camera pans from them to her face, their shallow conversation fades away, and Bennett as Roxanne, in her lovely, deep voice, sings the first song of the movie, “Someone to Say.” A wistful ballad that serves as the character’s “I want” song, and hearing her sing that she wants “someone to die for, write poems and cry for,” makes clear her desires and puts them on an equal level to those of Cyrano, who at this point the audience hasn’t even met yet.
We do meet Cyrano (played by Peter Dinklage) later that same evening, however. As deft with words as he is with a sword, Cyrano crashes the play in grand fashion. But as bold and confident as he when confronting the crowd, he later confides to his friend and fellow soldier Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin) that he loves Roxanne, a friend since childhood, but is afraid to tell her, convinced that she, a beautiful woman, could never love him as he is. In the play, Cyrano is an outcast because of his oversized nose; in this version, his short stature sets him apart. When Roxanne requests a private meeting with him, however, there is a sudden spark of hope that perhaps she is going to confess her love for him. In what is perhaps the most heart-breaking scene in a movie filled with heart-breaking scenes, a flushed Roxanne tells Cyrano that she has fallen in love. For at that same play they both attended, Roxanne locked eyes with Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome new recruit in the guard; they never spoke a word to each other, but the spark was there. She makes Cyrano promise her that he will befriend Christian and make him write to her, which a heartbroken Cyrano, unable to refuse Roxanne anything, reluctantly agrees to. But when he meets Christian, it’s revealed that as fervently as Christian returns Roxanne’s affections, he lacks the language skills necessary to write the sort of poetic love letters she longs for. So Cyrano volunteers to write them for Christian, giving him the ability to tell Roxanne everything he ever wanted to but could never say to her face—even as he’s helping his rival romance the woman he loves.
Dinklage is a terrific actor, but “Cyrano” boasts his greatest performance to date. Let’s go back to that moment where Roxanne tells him she loves Christian for a moment. The pair have a rapid back-and-forth; Roxanne is describing how she suddenly felt this way, how it’s as if she’s always known this man, and Cyrano, trying to get more information from her but also trying not to be too obvious, asks questions as he attempts to discern if she could possibly be speaking of him. Finally, Roxanne drops the bomb: when Cyrano prompts that perhaps this man feels the same, Roxanne says that she has never spoken to him. “Of your love?” Cyrano asks her, the hopeful note in his voice taking on an edgier tone, his smile becoming strained, before his face falls, and the conversation grinds to a halt. Throughout “Cyrano,” Dinklage seems to reach deep into his core and pull out so many painful, yearning moments that his expressive face and gravelly voice convey so authentically. He gracefully transitions from Cyrano’s public boasting to his quiet resignation, and yet, he is above all selfless, putting the happiness of Roxanne and eventually even Christian above his own, which makes him all the more endearing and makes us root for him to find his own happiness even more.
The rest of the cast is stellar as well. Mendelsohn’s performance borders on camp, with his haughty persona and painted face, but when the truly devious nature of his character is unveiled, he turns into a great villain (even getting a great villain song, “What I Deserve”). Harrison brings a fresh-faced innocence to Christian, while Bennett beautifully brings forth all those desires that she expressed as Roxanne at the start of the film and carries them through to the end. She is vain, as many other characters remake upon over the course of the story, but while her standards may be high and sort of specific, she is sincerely knows the sort of love she wants and sticks to it.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Wright directing this adaptation of a stage musical, given the way he has drawn on theatricality so beautifully in his past period dramas, particularly his brilliant 2012 film adaptation of “Anna Karenina.” While there is only one scene in the movie set literally on stage, the spirit of theater is carried on throughout the rest of the film, especially in its gorgeous production design. The sets feel like, well, sets, with characters often moving up and down stairs and inhabiting many different levels at once, and the locations feeling confined as opposed to sprawling, accentuated by lovely, soft lighting. The one aspect that “Cyrano” lacks in somewhat, and that musical fans in particular, may notice, is in the music and choreography. There aren’t any big dance numbers, but what choreography we do see is skillfully staged and shot. While many recent movie musicals have tended to include too many cuts in the edit, “Cyrano” concentrates on the sensuality of the dancers’ bodies, from a scene in a bakery where the bakers’ bodies mingle with flour and each other as they move, to the more regimented movements of the guard as they clash and swirl around Christian. The songs and score are by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the band The National, and they too are subtle, opting for soft, wistful tunes that convey the characters’ longing as opposed to big, belting numbers. They are mostly good (an early rap by Cyrano well conveys his way with words but feels awkwardly handled) but admittedly hit or miss, particularly when it comes to the manner in which they are performed. As magnificent as he is, Dinklage’s low voice doesn’t come off as strongly when he sings, particularly when compared to Bennett and Harrison. But it’s exciting to hear songs in a musical that are far from what we’d expect from, say, conventional Broadway show tunes, and to see how they are staged visually. The strongest example may be “Every Letter,” which Roxanne sings to illustrate her ecstasy at receiving love letters from Christian/Cyrano. Again demonstrating the ways in which the choreography emphasizes sensuality, she moves the letters across her body as she dances. The number eventually integrates Cyrano and Christian, pulling together their harmonies and using a split screen to bring them together even though they are physically separated.
There have been countless adaptations of “Cyrano de Bergerac” over the last century or so, from the stage to the screen. But with “Cyrano,” Wright and writer Schmidt makes a familiar tale feel fresh and exciting, from its invigorating music to its heartfelt performances. It was always a love story, but I don’t know that any previous version has so fully embraced the highs and lows of being in love as this film has. To create a work of art that is ultimately so sad yet so satisfying is a great achievement indeed.
“Cyrano” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: PG-13. Rated PG-13.