Cyrano, a musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s famous tragic romance, is as besotted with language as is its protagonist, a man enraptured with a woman he thinks won’t love him back. Besotted and enraptured might seem heady words nowadays, but heightened wordplay is the lingua franca of this film’s Paris of 1640, where people admire the cut of a barb as much as swordsmanship.
Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Rostand’s play is such a part of pop culture that it feels familiar even to those who have never seen it. Director Joe Wright (Anna Karenina, Atonement) and screenwriter Erica Schmidt lean into that familiarity, yet subvert it too, crafting a film that’s at turns witty, humorous, and poignant.
Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) and Haley Bennett (Hillbilly Elegy) reprise their roles from Schmidt’s 2019 stage production as Cyrano and his oblivious beloved, Roxanne. In the original play (and countless adaptations), Cyrano has confidence galore in his intellect but feels unworthy to woo Roxanne because of his oversize nose.
Here, Schmidt, who is married to Dinklage, reframes Cyrano’s feelings around his stature. I was apprehensive about this choice, but the film wrestles less with Cyrano’s “unique physique,” as one character puts it, than Cyrano does.
As much as he adores Roxanne, this Cyrano also is in love with the idea of being the long-suffering romantic who never wins her heart—something he discovers all too late.
“To confess is to shatter the dream,” he says when early in the film when a friend urges him to tell Roxanne how he feels. “My fate is to love her from afar.”
Wright and Schmidt have a frothy introduction for Roxanne, a society woman dressing to attend the theater with the much-older duke, De Guiche (a mustache-twirling Ben Mendelsohn, The Outsider). She doesn’t have the money to go on her own and wants to see the play. (Costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini puts her in a sumptuous green dress and other designs befitting the word confections.)
Her maid implies she’s rude to lead on De Guiche and tells her a “clever marriage” is her only option. “I’m not rude. I am enigmatically distant,” counters Roxanne, who sings about yearning for freedom as much as love.
At the theater, Cyrano heckles a performer from the shadows at first before swooping in and befuddling the man through words alone. When De Guiche’s buddy calls him a freak, Dinklage shows the sad resignation of a man who’s heard that before and more, then unleashes both barrels. “Can you see I’m much more than you think?” he says. “If you want to hurt me, you’d better get in line.”
Viewers who loved Dinklage’s wry and emotional performance on Game of Thrones will enjoy his Cyrano, a nobleman soldier in the French Army who is as quick with a sword as he is with his tongue. Dinklage is deft in the action scenes but especially affecting in the dramatic moments, genuine and open one moment while hiding wistfulness and longing the next. He doesn’t resent Roxanne’s cluelessness, telling his friend Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin, South Side), “Even her imperfections are perfect.”
Roxanne falls head over heels at first sight for Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a new cadet in Cyrano’s regiment. She begs Cyrano, as her oldest friend, to protect Christian and ask him to write her long love letters. Cyrano quips he cannot control the letters’ length or the content, but he takes over the correspondence once Christian proves more nervous than articulate.
Harrison (The Trial of the Chicago 7) is sympathetic in what could be a thankless part; he might be clumsy with words, but he’s no fool. At first, he’s insecure enough to go along with this ruse, even letting Cyrano speak for him to Roxanne in one of literature’s other famous balcony scenes. Yet Harrison also conveys Christian’s misgivings. He wants to be loved for who he is and loves Roxanne enough to insist that she know the truth.
Wright, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and production designer Sarah Greenwood, who both worked with Wright on previous projects, clearly relish the Sicily locations, with natural lighting and the stunning scenery providing sweeping arrangements for the musical numbers. The songs by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger, and Carin Berninger show an entire city that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Christian and the other cadets practically waltz around a castle to “Someone to Say,” while the baker (whom Cyrano sweetly coaches in writing poetry) bakes bread with stolen glances. Roxanne holds “Christian’s” letters to her lips in closeups, caresses the paper, and sings, “I Need More” while pages cascade around her. Even on the battlefield, soldiers such as musician Glen Hansard (Once), sing plaintive farewells in their own letters home.
The cast has fine singing voices, with Bennett especially ranging from whispery softness to sultry belting. Wright films Bennett, his real-life partner, in several closeups that emphasize Cyrano’s lovestruck view but inadvertently highlight the age gap between him and Roxanne. Nevertheless, Dinklage and Bennett make a charismatic pair.
Its blend of humor, music, and heartbreak makes Cyrano somewhat uneven, and the ending feels abrupt. Yet the film is charmingly imperfect, much like Cyrano finds Roxanne. I wished he were as brave in love as he is in battle, proving this story’s enduring allure.