Director Joe Wright’s career has been uneven in its attempts to reach the heights it did with the one-two punch of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement in 2005 and 2007 respectively, although his WWII-set period piece Darkest Hour received awards recognition in 2018. His latest film, Cyrano, only earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design this year, yet is worthy of so many more accolades because it’s a marvelous musical film adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play of the same name, and tremendous in all filmmaking aspects thanks to stellar direction, spellbinding songs, Peter Dinklage’s star turn, and a smart renovation of the source material.
Taking place in 17th century France, Dinklage plays the titular poet and exceptional soldier Cyrano de Bergerac, who is smitten with his lifelong friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a lovely woman in an esteemed position of high nobility, but can’t bring himself to swallow his pride and express his admiration for her out of self-consciousness, and the conviction that his small stature deems him unworthy of receiving love.
So after Roxanne tells Cyrano that she has fallen in love at first sight with a young army cadet named Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and upon a chance encounter with the young soldier who has the same feelings, Cyrano agrees to help Christian communicate his affection for her through writing love letters in his name, while the menacing Count de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn) asks for Roxanne’s hand in marriage to constant rejection, which drives him to aim for attaining it through devious means.
The renovation of the source material alluded to earlier takes shape as a modernization of the Cyrano character. In the original play, it’s a freakishly large nose that serves as the source of Cyrano’s insecurities. While a prosthetic nose can be easily made and worn by an actor as Derek Jacobi did in the 1985 film adaptation, director Wright decided to take a different approach, as detailed in an interview with the BBC: “Although we may suspend our disbelief, we know that the actor can, at the end of the day, take off his nose and go to the pub and be a handsome actor. Whereas with Pete, you know he is as he is. And he brings with his smaller stature a giant soul.”
And Dinklage puts his entire heart and soul into his lead performance as he has off-Broadway, particularly in a moment where he confronts an actor he resents with a dynamic force and power as if it’s something he’s gained over the years to the point where it just comes easy for him. Meanwhile, he projects Cyrano’s vast vocabulary with eloquence and strength that makes him an emphatically enigmatic character, aided by the pain in his eyes paired with the smile on his face when he reacts to Roxanne’s infatuation with Christian. Scenes where he expresses his innermost thoughts in tuneful, but subdued contemplation round out Dinklage’s work here as one of the best performances of the year.
Wright’s direction is worth writing home about as well. In Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, he established himself as a master of composing tracking shots and depicting period dramas with pinpoint authenticity. He does so again in Cyrano through gorgeously designed costumes and colorfully lavish art direction as well as long takes that follow characters onto a dangerous battlefield or past infinite rows of French soldiers practicing their swordplay behind the columns of a labyrinthian hallway.
These also aid to the musical numbers, which are performed with phenomenal singing talent from the entire ensemble cast, and translated from off-Broadway to celluloid in impeccable fashion. One such example comes in the “Every Letter” number, where Cyrano, Roxanne and Christian are superimposed on screen together from different locations to sing the original tune’s chorus in a driving, powerful unison.
Wright’s direction is in top form in most areas, but Cyrano does have a handful of jarring tonal shifts from one song to a scene of standard narrative and back again. For instance, after the opening number (“Someone To Say”) which bestows a shot that makes Roxanne look enchanting from a passing myriad of mirror reflections, the ensuing dialogue scene feels executed like it belongs on stage rather than the silver screen through its wide framing and exaggerated delivery of dialogue.
Cyrano finds its footing after the first act, however, and the ensuing epic is one that audiences will be enthralled in from start to finish. Viewers will gawk at the breathtaking extravagance in the visuals, be captivated by the songs vivaciously brought to life by rock band The National, and be moved by the story’s emotional turns and themes of the music, which are important for anyone that feels discouraged by their appearances or hindrances to hear. In an award season full of must-see musicals from Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Tick, Tick…BOOM!, Cyrano stands out as one of the best.