I have been here before. Or exactly? Oh, just the land of disappointment. Have you met our mayor, Joe Wright?
On the heels of triumphant achievements like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and furthermore, there is no filmmaker I root for more strongly with each new project. And yet, after missteps like Stove and The woman at the window, there seems to be no filmmaker more capable of completely letting me down. It gives me no pleasure to say that Wright has again failed with Cyranoan overstuffed, underdirected mess of a musical that not even the talented Peter Dinklage, who is by far the best thing about the movie, can salvage, no matter how hard he tries (and oh, he tries).
So many Cyrano should work. It’s a classic story, Edmund Rostand’s fable of an ugly poet in love with a beautiful woman who finds himself helping a handsome soldier woo her. Adapted by Erica Schmidt, it’s a filmed version of the play she wrote and directed, one that also starred Peter Dinklage when it premiered on Broadway in 2019 (we wonder if Schmidt would have could better film his own work, while Wright fumbles the procedure from the first). Set in 17th-century France, the film is stunning to watch, from its lush costumes to its dreamy vistas. Alongside Dinklage is a respectable cast, including Haley Bennett (Swallow) like the sweet and beautiful Roxanne; Kelvin Harrison, Jr.The Chicago Trial 7) as a dashing Christian; and, in a laughable role well below his talents, Ben Mendelsohn as the Duke of Guiche, a nobleman with his shady views on Roxanne. The music, mostly forgettable and forced, is by the members of The National (music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner; lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser). Wright returns to work with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who has been DP for the filmmaker on several of his films (including the two Atonement and Stove).
Unfortunately, all of these parts add up to a sum that leaves us wanting, even if it takes a moment to realize. Cyrano opens with a flurry of activity, as we’re swept into a bustling theater where Roxanne settles into a prominent dressing room for an evening of entertainment and the star actor begins to deliver his mediocre scene (this isn’t is not my judgement, it’s the purpose of the scene!). Soon the crowd parted ways to reveal Dinklage among them, full of swagger and confidence as he lashed out at the actor for shorting that admiring audience of the performance he deserved. Dinklage owns the moment (as he does in every scene he’s in), and it’s clear right away that he and Roxanne share a special bond. When Roxanne spots Christian in the audience, it’s also clear that she’s immediately in love with him. Later, as Dinklage told a fellow soldier about his love for Roxanne, I found myself actively engaged in the moment, rooted for Cyrano and utterly won over by the performance.
Soon that hopeful sense of promise fades away with a heavy sigh, as the various elements of the film can’t keep up with what Dinklage is doing. Wright, the man who brought us one of the most remarkable follow-up scenes in movie history, can’t quite figure out what he wants the camera to do for most of the film, especially musical numbers (and there are many) . Roxanne’s sultry number “I Need More,” a missive that yearns for a passionate, physical connection with the man behind the letters, plays like a mid-’90s music video with about as much emotional weight. When Cyrano and Christian are called to war, one of the film’s most poignant moments, the moving “Wherever I Fall” about love and loss on the battlefield (and featuring a delightful cameo that I won’t spoil here), is ultimately marred by his own labored lyrics and sluggish camerawork that makes it seem like he’ll never make it to the scene’s big reveal.
The film’s final moments are the most frustrating, as Cyrano and Roxanne are resigned to their respective fates and the two have perhaps the first truly honest conversation of their long friendship. It should be an emotionally rich exchange, tinged with the tragedy of their long inability to be on the same page (pun intended). Instead, Wright’s heavy, static framing keeps us at bay, making it nearly impossible to salvage the goodwill of those characters who might stick around at this point. It’s a curious choice from a filmmaker who clearly knows how to do better, who has managed time and time again through his direction to send powerful emotions from the screen to his audience.
I’ve said more than once that movie musicals aren’t easy to do well, and I stand by that, especially in a year where we’ve seen both wildly successful examples and far fewer. CyranoI’m sorry to say, sits towards the lower end of that spectrum, even with Dinklage’s winning performance (and enviable costume design) at its center.
Cyrano now playing in theaters.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by make a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you and know how much we appreciate your support!