‘Cyrano’ review: Who wrote the book of love?
By A.O. Scott
Cyrano de Bergerac is a lover and a fighter, but when we first meet him he is indulging in a brutal bit of theater criticism. Played with grace and gusto by Peter Dinklage, Cyrano emerges from a standing-room-only crowd to berate a pompous actor and drive him from the stage. With cutting rhymes and a sharp sword, he defends dramatic truth against the woeful thespian’s powdered preening. The audience, which had paid to see Cyrano’s victim, nonetheless mostly applauds his humiliation. The few who object are marked as fools, phonies or outright villains.
Artifice mobilized in defense of authenticity. It’s a paradox as old as art, and one that “Cyrano,” a new screen musical based on Edmond Rostand’s French-class chestnut, embraces with a risky ardor. 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 script by Erica Schmidt, this version wears its heart on its ruffled sleeve, pursuing its lush, breathless vision of romance with more sincerity than coherence.
The original Cyrano, first performed in 1897, was an artful throwback to the poetic dramas of the 17th century, written in Alexandrine couplets and infused with lofty, archaic notions of love and honor. In the decades since, the story has become familiar through countless variations and adaptations. Cyrano, a soldier ashamed of his large, misshapen nose, is in love with Roxanne, who is smitten with a callow cutie named Christian. Cyrano uses his literary talents to woo Roxanne in Christian’s name. Each man becomes the other’s proxy. “I will make you eloquent, and you will make me handsome,” Cyrano says.
The resulting confusion produces both comedy — a tangle of crossed signals and mistaken identities — and tragedy. Some versions soften or eliminate the tragedy, like Fred Schepisi’s sweet “Roxanne” (1987), starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, and the recent Netflix teen charmer “The Half of It.” Wright and Schmidt’s “Cyrano,” which originated onstage in 2019, charges in the other direction, telegraphing its heartache in lyrics and building toward an operatic, death-haunted end.
Along the way, it supplies some moments of fun, mostly thanks to Dinklage and Ben Mendelsohn as his conniving, predatory nemesis, the Duke De Guiche. He too is smitten with Roxanne (Haley Bennett), and as a high-ranking military officer holds the fates of Cyrano and Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in his hands. Mendelsohn excels at playing silky, sadistic bad guys like this, and he offers himself as a perfect foil to Dinklage, whose Cyrano is acerbic, cantankerous and openhearted.
His small stature rather than his large nose makes this Cyrano think himself unworthy of Roxanne, who sees him as a close friend and confidant. She and Christian have an immediate physical spark, efficiently conveyed through smoldering glances. Bennett and Harrison do their part to infuse a technically chaste courtship with an element of horniness. Her cheeks are in a state of permanent semi-blush, and he conveys stammering, tongue-tied desire.
They almost upstage Cyrano’s words, which are meant to supply the conduit for a truer form of love. Rostand’s play is built on an emotional rendering of the mind-body problem. Together, Cyrano and Christian add up to a perfect man — word and image, spirit and flesh, agape and eros — but only insofar as they succeed in deceiving Roxanne. Even though there is only one of her, she is also divided between the cerebral and the sensual dimensions of love.
At one point, Wright tries to bridge this gap by staging part of a musical number in Roxanne’s bedroom, where she reads Christian’s — that is, Cyrano’s — letters in a state of soft-focus ecstasy, pressing the pages against her lips and bosom as she tumbles across the duvet. The earnest preposterousness of this sequence, which might have worked on MTV sometime in the early ’90s, is representative of the movie’s silliness and its longing for sublimity.
A musical should be capable of embracing both. But Wright, while a canny craftsman, is too committed to good taste to go over the top into either melodrama or camp. The music strikes a pretty good balance between rock ’n’ roll economy and show-tune extravagance, though the soundtrack is like an album of second-best songs. Only a plaintive anthem sung by soldiers on the eve of battle stands out, partly because its sentimentality has little to do with the central love triangle.
Somehow, that geometry never quite aligns, despite the gameness of the cast. Bennett and Harrison are both reasonably strong singers, and Dinklage’s voice has a gravelly credibility. He sounds a little 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, its undoing. From the moment Cyrano enters the action, his charisma and intelligence are on splendid display, and Dinklage — jaunty, melancholy, sly — takes possession of the movie. But that means that the argument on which the drama depends is over before it has even begun.
Rated PG-13. Swooning and swordplay. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.