My fate is to love her from afar.
We were about three songs into Joe Wright‘s Cyrano when my partner and I looked at each other and said, almost in unison, “These songs are pretty bad.” I don’t need rhymes (and especially not ones as rudimentary as “know” and “go” and “Cyrano” back-to-back-to-back), but I’d love some sort of dynamism to make me believe there was a reason someone wanted to turn Edmond Rostand‘s “Cyrano de Bergerac” into a musical. What about the material screamed song? What kind of exciting stage work, choreography, and performance could come from the addition? You must give me something other than actors stating dialogue in ways that are less dramatic than if they were simply allowed to speak. And hearing Matt Berninger‘s voice during the credits was not a coincidence.
Suddenly things started to make sense. My partner had her epiphany as to why it all sounded popish without any resemblance to the type of music you need on a stage while I recalled how Berninger’s band The National (he co-wrote the 2018 musical’s lyrics with wife Carin Besser while bandmates Aaron and Bryce Dessner wrote the music) has become famous off songs that are borderline spoken word themselves. Where we both enjoy their albums a lot, however, the translation from rock-n-roll pop stardom to theatrical narrative propulsion is not one-to-one. And while Wright tries his best at the start of the film (adapted by original writer Erica Schmidt, who is also Peter Dinklage‘s wife) to inject visual panache and diegetic instrumentation via rifles and the like, everything turns very static very quickly.
Besides the sword fight number entitled “When I Was Born” that pits Cyrano’s (Dinklage) diminutive poet against a rudely posh friend of Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), the only song that dared to show any emotion at all was “I Need More”. That one sees Roxanne (Haley Bennett)—an old friend of Cyrano’s and the woman he loves—lamenting how the man she loves, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), ruined their first face-to-face meeting since love at first sight struck by speaking words that didn’t resemble those he had been writing in letters (because said letters were actually written by Cyrano). The moment needs that impact because it’s a make-it-or-break-it point-of-no-return for the men. Do they continue their ruse? Or does Cyrano finally admit his feelings?
The other songs grind the proceedings to a halt rather than augment the ample drama, action, and comedy. It’s a shame too because this isn’t a bad film. You can’t really ruin “Cyrano de Bergerac”. I haven’t seen it since the early 90s, but I’ll go to bat for Steve Martin‘s Roxanne based on nostalgia alone. And that’s why Cyrano proves so disappointing. Adding music could have been an inventive way to breathe new life into the material or at least provide a sensory jumpstart to demand the need for yet another familiar version. To therefore have it render the humor inert and the tragic circumstances even more dour is a missed opportunity at best. The National’s indie folk rock sad-core tone does not a rousing experience make.
Dinklage and company do try their best to overcome, though. He’s fantastic in the title role. His rapport with friend Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin) is witty, his endearing awkwardness around Roxanne is charming, and his brotherly love and frustration with the man he’s letting use his voice to win the woman of his dreams is heartbreakingly pure. Bennett expands upon her great work in Swallow to remind Hollywood she has the goods to take on meatier roles than her earlier career allowed while Harrison Jr. imbues the subtle gravitas that has turned him into one of his generation’s best actors. Even Mendelsohn is effective regardless of his chewing the scenery with the villainy this chapter of his career has embraced. They make us care when the music cannot.
And that goes a long way towards compensating for its problems. When the scenery shifts from the city’s splendor (France by way of Sicily) to the desolate wasteland of war, the sheer lack of both melody and energy is countered by the sadness etched on the faces of the men slowly admitting defeat. For better or worse, Wright always chooses to highlight the performances rather than go crazy with elaborate set-pieces. It’s an odd truth considering the stunning aesthetic wizardry of Anna Karenina and visual panache of Pan since Wright’s history of doing the opposite made the idea of him directing a musical so exciting. We can almost sense that he’s fighting his impulses here instead. He’s trying to rein in the creativity for that recognizable prestige sheen.
The whole is hurt as a result. Sometimes a glorious failure is better than a mediocre success because you will at least get people talking about the work. And when the musical itself seems hardly worth our time on its own with so many other adaptations in existence, Cyrano was behind the eight ball before it even started filming. It needs something or someone to go above and beyond and sadly only Wright can be that person. The actors are beholden to uninteresting music. It’s therefore on the director to give them the room to break free from those constraints. When it’s not just staid frames for depressing songs, however, it’s rapid montage-like cuts preventing even the aforementioned “I Need More” from letting its emotion breathe.
 Peter Dinklage stars as Cyrano in Joe Wright’s CYRANO. Photo credit: Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 Haley Bennett stars as Roxanne in Joe Wright’s CYRANO. Photo credit: Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars as Christianin Joe Wright’s CYRANO. Photo credit: Peter Mountain © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.