It can seem that there have been as many film versions of “Cyrano de Bergerac” as there are stage productions of Edmond Rostand’s timeless romance. I can remember animated ones and bloody ones, witty ones and Cyranos set in high schools and in rural fire departments.
But modernizing it inevitably sweetens it up and strips away the tragedy of it all. You have to go back to the late 17th/early 18th century for audiences to tolerate “Cyrano” as the broken-hearted figure he truly is.
This latest tale of the swordsman, wit and lover too “ugly” to woo fair Roxanne is based on the 2018 stage musical, with stars Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett reprising the lead roles. And it’s just lovely, with all the romantic longing, the heartbreak and the waste of war intact.
And then there are the sweet songs by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, mournful ballads that do the things musical numbers do so well — express longing, loss, venal rage and fatalism, and in ways that let the characters show us that mere words and moist, laughing or flashing eyes aren’t enough when it comes to expressing emotions this intense.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences didn’t pay this latest take on an old fashioned romance much heed. The songs feel modern, but lean more to ballads than the “Hamilton” hip hop of Lin Manuel-Miranda. The casting is daring, not exactly A-list prestigious, but quite good.
So let’s just say the Academy can suck eggs. This is gorgeous, and if it isn’t my favorite “Cyrano” (Jose Ferrer, one more bow, if you please.), it’s still a damned fine interpretation.
Joe Wright (“Atonement,””Darkest Hour”), moving the production to ancient and sundrenched Sicily, makes the fanciful characters and situations seem flesh-and-blood real. He takes us from a riot in the theater, where insults and wordplay lead to bloody swordplay, to balcony confessions of true love and to a grim, grey and expressionistic battlefield where the men who would woo Roxanne face their fate.
The story, as if you need reminding — Roxanne (Bennett of “Hillbilly Elegy” and “The Girl on the Train”) sashays around the unnamed city like the belle of the ball, confiding much, if not all, to her “dearest friend,” the soldier and poet Cyrano de Bergerac.
This Cyrano (Dinklage, fresh off “Game of Thrones”), who thinks himself too “ugly” to woo the fair lady hasn’t got the infamous nose standing in his way. He is a dwarf, and a sharp-tongued and short-tempered one to boot. He ridicules and bullies a hammy star actor of the day off the stage, is challenged by a foppish friend (Joshua James) of the Duke (Ben Mendelsohn) right there on that stage, in front of Roxanne and her suitor, the imperious, lusty Duke himself.
Whilst Cyrano is trying to impress Roxanne and spare the theater from being turned into a “stye,” Roxanne is swooning at the sight of a new recruit to Cyrano’s regiment, The Guards. Christian, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Waves,””The Photograph”), is young and handsome and just as smitten. But he’s a tad green.
When Roxanne insists her friend, Cyrano, look after the lad in the army, “I am your servant” is all he can say. Dinklage lets us see the utter devastation behind Cyrano’s eyes.
He will write the lady letters on Christian’s behalf. He will protect him from hazing rituals. And when Christian and Roxanne insist on wooing by moonlight, the romantic poet Cyrano’s baritone will be the voice from the shadows, speaking in Christian’s stead.
“I have no wit,” the lad admits. “Borrow mine” the dashing swordsman offers.
“Catfishing” was much more romantic this way, one must confess.
Bennett, who first gained notice in the pop musical (ish) “Words & Music,” has a lovely voice. Dinklage gives a pleasing, manly melancholy to Cyrano’s laments. Harrison is quite good, and Mendelsohn, playing another heavy, growls through his big number with panache.
There’s an elegant minimalism to Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography for the film — army recruits balletically backing Christian’s reprise of that opening “longing” song sung by his beloved, Roxanne, bakers sensually plunging their hands in the dough and in rhythm in a scene without singing.
And cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Sarah Greenwood turn the ancient locations into lived-in, loved-in and fought-over spaces bathed in light and candlelit shadow.
No, the songs aren’t going to turn the soundtrack into a best-seller, and as is often the case with this source play, the middle acts sag and slow down from the giddy opening. But the film’s battlefield scenes, with their blasted (Volcanic?) landscape and limited, backlit color-palette are the real grabbers.
That’s where the film and the score’s greatest moment plays out, doomed soldiers writing letters to loved ones before a “suicide” mission, with various infantry (including singer Glen Hansard from “Once”) singing that “heaven” will be “Wherever I Fall.”
Forget the judgment of the distracted Academy, whose “youth movement” in expanding membership is probably not the audience for an old fashioned (diversely cast) tearjerker of a musical. You’ll see it’s not just Dinklage’s stunningly-soulful, Oscar-worthy rendition of the title role that will stick with you afterwards. Cyrano is meant to make you cry, and this musical and its star do, and more than once.
Rating: PG-13 for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material, and brief language
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Dolan, Ruth Sheen, Anjana Vasan, Glen Hansard and Ben Mendelsohn
Credits: Directed by Joe Wright, scripted by Erica Schmidt, based on her stage musical which was based the play by Edmond Rostand. An MGM release.
Running time: 2:04