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'Cyrano' infuses an oft-told tale with disarming sincerity and operatic passion

Haley Bennett stars as Roxanne in Joe Wright's <em>Cyrano</em>.
Peter Mountain
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
Haley Bennett stars as Roxanne in Joe Wright's Cyrano.

A lot of great actors have played Cyrano de Bergerac over the years, including José Ferrer, Christopher Plummer, Gérard Depardieu, Kevin Kline and Steve Martin, if you count — and why not? — the 1987 modern-day comedy Roxanne.

The latest to join their distinguished company is Peter Dinklage, and he's the rare actor not to wear a fake nose for the role. Here, it's not a big schnoz but rather Cyrano's diminutive stature that makes him think he's unworthy of Roxanne, the woman he loves, played by Haley Bennett.

That's not the only major departure from Edmond Rostand's tragicomic 1897 play. This solid and sometimes enchanting movie, simply titled Cyrano, was adapted by Erica Schmidt from her 2019 stage musical, with a score and songs by members of the band The National. Their sweet, somber melodies bring a decidedly modern edge to the story, which takes place sometime between the 17th and 18th centuries. While Cyrano de Bergerac usually unfolds in Paris, the movie, shot mostly in Sicily, doesn't specify an exact location.

Apart from those changes, it's the same story. Cyrano, a respected soldier in the king's army, is renowned and feared for his superb swordsmanship and his scathing wit, both of which have made him powerful enemies like Count de Guiche, played by a scowling Ben Mendelsohn.

Cyrano is also deeply in love with Roxanne, a longtime friend who admires his confrontational spirit and his way with words. But Roxanne has fallen for Christian, a dashing young soldier — played by a very good Kelvin Harrison Jr. — who's just joined Cyrano's regiment. Cyrano takes on the role of a go-between and even goes so far as to write impossibly eloquent love letters to Roxanne, passing them off as Christian's.

At the climax of this farcical romantic triangle, Roxanne stands at her bedroom window while the hopelessly inarticulate Christian tries to woo her, with some much-needed prodding from Cyrano, lurking in the shadows. At a certain point, Cyrano takes over, and he gives full voice to his passionate feelings in a lovely duet between him and a still-unsuspecting Roxanne.

Fun fact: Dinklage and screenwriter Schmidt are a couple, as are Bennett and the film's director, Joe Wright. Think of it as a romantic behind-the-scenes footnote to a movie that's unabashedly romantic in spirit. Wright's filmmaking has a pleasing old-fashioned sumptuousness, courtesy of production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designers Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran, who are Oscar-nominated for their dazzling work here.

As he did in past films like Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina, Wright controls the camera with fluid grace, letting us see the actors and dancers moving through space with none of the busy cutting you get in so many contemporary movie musicals. Bennett is a trained singer, and she delivers the movie's strongest musical performance; her Roxanne really comes to emotional life when she's called on to sing.

Dinklage has musical experience, too — he was the frontman of a '90s punk band called Whizzy — and he expresses Cyrano's every longing with a deep, soulful baritone. He's an inspired choice for the role: Like Tyrion Lannister, whom Dinklage played to perfection on Game of Thrones, Cyrano is always the smartest person in the room, easy to underestimate but hard to defeat in a battle of wits or weapons.

But Dinklage shows you the deep ache at Cyrano's core, and makes you feel the sting of his unrequited love. Some purists may miss that big nose, but there's something about the lack of prosthetic enhancements that makes Dinklage's performance all the more poignant: What you see onscreen is all him, nothing more and nothing less.

That disarming sincerity applies to the movie as a whole. It's not always the most graceful retelling of this oft-told tale, but it's hard not to admire Wright's conviction and sometimes his crazy audacity. Only a truly committed director would have opted to shoot a climactic battle scene at 16,000 feet above sea level on the side of Mount Etna, a live volcano. It's a showy flourish, for sure — but also a fitting one for a story of such grand, operatic passion.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.