One need only tune in to a single episode of Game of Thrones to recognize that no matter how many high quality special effects you surround him with, none can match the raw power of Peter Dinklage’s face. His puppy dog eyes in concert with his chiseled chin and assertive speaking voice have made him into a powerful leading man, and all are used to their maximum potential in Cyrano, Joe Wright’s take on the classic tale of lovers and miscommunication. This latest version of the tale is a musical (a fact that somehow eluded many of my fellow moviegoers), and one that takes advantage of Joe Wright’s painterly lens and the lyrical prowess of The National.
For those unfamiliar with the story (or who haven’t seen Roxanne), the play Cyrano de Bergerac is about a poet who, due to his comically large nose, lacks the confidence to pursue the woman of his dreams. When a colleague expresses interest in the same woman, but also expresses doubt at his ability to woo her, Cyrano offers his lyrical prose on his colleague’s behalf, resulting in a strange love triangle. The object of their affection, Roxanne, falls in love with her new suitor, but is unaware of the assistance Cyrano has offered. So who is she really falling in love with? The face of her suitor, or the words of his invisible friend? Naturally, this causes confusion, comedy, tragedy, and that feeling you get when you’re watching a Ben Stiller movie and want to scream “EVERYONE JUST SHUT UP AND LET HIM EXPLAIN HIMSELF BEFORE I EXPLODE!”
In this current version, it’s Cyrano’s small stature that gives him pause rather than a giant nose. Thank goodness the filmmakers didn’t go the nose route, lest they cover up Dinklage’s profoundly expressive face with gaudy prosthetic makeup. Whether he’s dueling with an enemy, serenading Roxanne from the shadows, or dealing with yet another romantic rebuffing, it’s Dinklage’s face that does the heavy lifting. It’s far from a silent performance (if you think his speaking voice is commanding, wait until you hear him sing), but even if it was, it would be just as effective. There’s no denying the skill and star power that Dinklage possesses. He’s not alone. The target of his romantic advances is brought to life by Haley Bennett, and although her face is not as malleable as her co-lead’s, boy oh boy can she carry a melody. Hers is a lively performance that paves over any cynicism toward the concept of love at first sight — few will be able to avoid falling at least a little bit in love with this radiant version of Roxanne. This includes Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr., perhaps the best singer of the bunch) and the evil De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, whose ability to exude slime remains unmatched).
For those like myself who grew up with Steve Martin’s comic delight Roxanne, don’t go in expecting lighthearted fun. While there is plenty of fun to be had, this shit is BLEAK. Joe Wright brought us the bleaksterpiece Atonement, and Cyrano is much more in tune with that than it is to say, Pan, his silly Peter Pan riff that features Hugh Jackman’s Captain Hook singing Smells Like Teen Spirit. I’m serious.
How bleak? Well there’s a war a-brewing in the background of the film and one scene features a medley of soldiers singing their regrets before heading off into what is sure to be a suicide mission. And if that’s not emotionally devastating enough for you, the soldier who kicks off the tune is played by Glen Hansard. Glen. Fucking. Hansard! That guy could make you cry by singing the instruction manual for a washer dryer combo.
The one downside to Cyrano is that it takes a bit to get going. The opening number, while peppy and pretty, fails to find the line between stage and film, and ends up comparatively bland to what comes later in the film. The first hour or so, while entertaining, is tonally wishy-washy, as if it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. But once it finds its rhythm, the film, like Cyrano himself, finds a confidence in its tone and style that borders on swagger — the same energy which made Atonement‘s gut punch of an ending so powerful. This issue is perhaps in the eye of the beholder, and may fade upon repeat viewings, but the first time around it feels like a stumble start (despite housing a truly incredible fight sequence which make both stylish and believable little Cyrano’s ability to kill multiple weaponed attackers).
In the days since taking in the film, I’ve found myself listening to the soundtrack quite a bit. I did not grow up with The National and was only mildly familiar with their work until Cyrano kicked that door wide open. Since then I have really grown to appreciate what they do as musicians, but even more so as lyricists. This is where Cyrano shines brightest. The original play was written in verse, and while the movie hasn’t a perfect recreation of said structure, the poetry of the lyrics are downright magical. So often a line or two in any song in any musical will feel like throwaway material that exists just to complete a rhyme. This is never the case in Cyrano. Remarkable stuff.
There are a lot of reasons to check out Cyrano, but we all know why most people will plunk their ass into a theater seat: Peter Dinklage. The man is a born star, and with the leading role in Cyrano under his belt, he’s about to redefine “leading man” for an industry regularly in need of shake up. So do your part and nab a ticket. It’s worth it. Bring tissues.
Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Edmond Rostand, Erica Schmidt
Starring Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr. Ben Mendeldsohn
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes