Give 100 reasonably literate people a word-association test—“Just say the first thing that leaps to mind,” that whole deal—and the prompt Cyrano De Bergerac would elicit, in at least 90 cases, the response “nose.” Even those who’ve never seen Edmond Rostand’s classic play (first performed in 1897), or any of its numerous film adaptations, know of the title character’s prominent schnoz, which he believes makes him unworthy of his true love, Roxanne. Every movie star who’s played Cyrano, including José Ferrer (an Oscar winner in the role), Gérard Depardieu, and Steve Martin, has risked being upstaged by the prosthetic protuberance jutting from his face. Cyrano with an average-size nose would be like Dumbo with average-size ears: pointless.
Yet that’s what the latest Cyrano offers, and it works just fine. This musical version is the brainchild of theater director Erica Schmidt, who realized, a few years ago, that her husband could play the part without modifying any aspect of his body. As it happened, her husband was available, being on a breather from Game Of Thrones. The stage version of Cyrano, starring Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett, premiered in 2018; both actors have returned for this film adaptation—directed, just to keep things super-intimate, by Bennett’s life partner, Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Darkest Hour, etc.). And no sooner does Dinklage appear than it’s obvious that a darkly handsome, intensely charismatic man with dwarfism makes an ideal Cyrano.
Or he would, at least, were this Cyrano not also a musical. Schmidt, demonstrating exquisite taste, commissioned songs from members of The National; brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner wrote the music, while Matt Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser (not technically part of the band, but a longtime songwriting contributor), penned the lyrics. What’s fascinating about this experiment in cross-pollination is that anyone who’s familiar with The National will immediately recognize their handiwork, even as the numbers come across as entirely typical show tunes. Listening to Bennett sing the “I want” ballad “Someone To Say” in the opening sequence, you can readily imagine Berninger doing the same, several octaves lower; listening to any National album afterwards, you can suddenly picture its most sweeping, grandiose tracks as elaborate musical numbers. It’s an inspired choice.
Trouble is, the film’s superb lead actor isn’t much of a singer. Dinklage doesn’t embarrass himself the way that, say, Russell Crowe did in Les Misérables; he can carry a tune, and at times seems to be attempting a Berninger impression of sorts, which actually does help. But his singing voice just isn’t powerful enough to convey the heightened emotions in which musicals traffic. Bennett, a trained vocalist—her very first onscreen role, at age 18, was as the pop diva in 2007’s Music And Lyrics—makes Roxanne an order of magnitude more impassioned when belting out her solos, whereas Dinklage’s Cyrano gets diminished every time he does the same. Nor are either of the other principals—Kelvin Harrison Jr. (as Christian, the good-looking but witless soldier whose love letters to Roxanne are ghost-written by Cyrano) and Ben Mendelsohn (sneering up a storm as aristocratic villain De Guiche)—remotely on Bennett’s level in that department.
Granted, this is a standard disappointment nowadays: Big-budget movies can’t get financed without celebrities, and few of those have extensive musical experience, so virtually every screen musical feels compromised. Still, it’s not as if Dinklage replaced a terrific but unknown stage actor. The project was conceived for him, and he captures Cyrano’s unusual mix of bravado and insecurity so exquisitely that he really didn’t require songs to push those feelings to another level. It’s almost physically painful to watch him during the crucial scene in which Roxanne confesses her love for Christian to Cyrano, who initially believes that she’s shyly declaring herself to him. The gradual escalation of his ecstasy, followed by a sudden deflation that he valiantly struggles to hide (even agreeing to protect and assist his rival), is raw meat for any performer, but Dinklage has a remarkable knack for modulating his reactions—even for the camera’s close eye—so that they’re at once theatrically intensified and richly human.
He’s not bad with a sword, either, and Wright, who’s partial to movement (whether that of actors or his own camera), orchestrates one impressive action sequence that sees Cyrano take on 10 ruffians at once, at one point armed only with a couple of torches that he’s plucked from an alley wall. Overall, though, Cyrano plays best as an intimate drama (with comedic elements) rather than as spectacle. Schmidt wrote the book herself, following Rostand fairly closely (while condensing the play quite a bit), and generates some amusing repartee. “You don’t think that [Roxanne] has the depth to look beyond your—” says Cyrano’s buddy, Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin), interrupted by Cyrano’s ominous “Careful…”; Le Bret speedily finishes his sentence with “unique physique,” prompting an equally rapid and grudging “Not bad!” The movie’s version of the play’s famed balcony scene, on the other hand, in which Christian attempts to woo Roxanne in person while Cyrano feeds him poetically ardent lines from the shadows, lacks sparkle, in part because it has Cyrano take over the seduction in song. A musical with numbers written by The National was a terrific idea, and so was Dinklage as Cyrano. Just not at the same time.