When we look back on the best period romance dramas of the 21st century, two immediately spring to mind: Joe Wright's directorial debut, 'Pride and Prejudice' and his follow-up, 'Atonement'. It's a one-two debut punch for the ages, and while Wright attempted to expand his skillset over the next 16 years, it would become clear that his wheelhouse belonged to the multitudes of the heart - with a bunch of luxurious gowns thrown in for good measure. Much like his 2012 adaptation of 'Anna Karenina', Wright's new musical 'Cyrano' is a simultaneous return to form and a pushing of the envelope on a genre he mastered so long ago. In fact, it's so Wright-esque that one expects his frequent collaborator Keira Knightley to show up at any moment.
Based on the 2018 stage musical (which was also based on the 1897 play 'Cyrano de Bergerac', which was itself a fictionalisation of its real-life protagonist), the film centres on the feisty Cyrano de Bergarac (Peter Dinklage, 'The Croods: A New Age'), a cadet with no qualms about taking on ten thugs on his way through an alley, but who freezes up at the mere thought of confessing his love for close friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett, 'Hillbilly Elegy', reprising her role from the stage musical). Unfortunately for Cyrano, Roxanne has mutually fallen at first sight for fellow soldier Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr, 'The Trial of the Chicago 7') - even though they have never exchanged a word. Wanting to see his object of affection happy (and also convinced that he would never be good enough for Roxanne), Cyrano impulsively offers the ineloquent Christian his own skills as a talented letter writer to help Christian and Roxanne's love story bloom. Of course, anyone who's remotely familiar with the story knows the plan won't play out smoothly.
SWITCH: 'CYRANO' TRAILER
What is it about Cyrano's story that has stood the test of time and bred countless remakes? Is it the romantic hijinks, the thrill of a love triangle born through selflessness and false pretences? Is it the ever-applicable theme of grappling with one's perceived identity versus the one they put on (in public, or now, behind a screen) to find a partner? Or is it the chivalrous, chaste courtship in the original text that feels too perfect not to truly yearn for? Perhaps, Wright suggests, it is all three. Both in front of the camera and behind it, 'Cyrano' is a labour of love; Wright's real-life partner Bennett is the romantic lead; Dinklage's wife Erica Schmidt, who brought the 2018 stage musical to life, returns as screenwriter; the lyrics for the songs were written by The National's Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser. While the songs most likely won't make it to mainstream radio airwaves any time soon, they are far and away the strongest moments in the film, particularly helping to give Christian dimension beyond what is typically afforded of the simpleton pawn in many romance film mischiefs. Harrison Jr absolutely sells this too, and his self-awareness of his inability to pen a charming letter, as well as his chemistry with Dinklage, makes us almost... pine for the romantic rival? Just as impressive (and frenetic) is Bennett, whose Roxanne is so impatient to break free of her circumstance that she literally cannot sit still in her ultra-tight corset through some of her scenes - a stark contrast to her delicate, soaring singing voice.
'Cyrano' feels like a simultaneous return to form and a pushing of the envelope for Joe Wright.
While a common awards season mistake is blowing one's metaphorical load too early, releasing a potential hot contender so soon into the race that it gets forgotten in a sea of other films, 'Cyrano' instead suffers from being released too late. Sadly, the window of eligibility for this film sits within the 2021-22 awards season, leaving no Oscar opportunity for Dinklage who, in reprising his on-stage performance in the lead role, is far and away the best male performance I have seen all year. Never one to be considered underqualified for a role, Dinklage has curiously also starred in another adaptation, the 2010 Australian comedy 'I Love You Too,' in which Dinklage's Cyrano stand-in helps a dim-witted friend win back the love of his life through love letters. Consistently the best part of every project he takes on, Dinklage's performance is more weathered, cynical and physical than one could possibly imagine, his singing taking on the tenor of Berninger's low grumble to really drive his misery home.
It would also be impossible to avoid mention of how Dinklage's stature lends his performance a credibility rarely seen in other adaptations. One of the key deviations of this film and its source musical from the 1897 text is Cyrano's physical "ailment"; his main source of woe is his incredibly large nose, a prosthetic that actors in the role could easily divorce themselves from when the director yelled cut. Thankfully, the film circumvents the notion that Cyrano's dwarfism is what makes him unworthy of Roxanne's love, but rather a serious case of friendzoning on Roxanne's behalf.
While you'd best look elsewhere for a showy, earworm-filled musical, Wright's delicate, lush directing and Dinklage's captivating performance make 'Cyrano' a sight to behold. It's a film that feels a quiet confidence in itself, swathing the sorrow of romance in enough tear-stained parchment paper to soften the blow but not lose the hearts of its audience.