There was something moving and even poignant in watching the MGM Lion logo roaring once again at the opening of director Joe Wright’s new musical adaptation of Cyrano last night at the Telluride Film Festival, where this lovely new telling of the classic story of Cyrano de Bergerac had its world premiere. Both MGM and de Bergerac have had a storied history in show business, and both are still very alive through a series of reincarnations. MGM in its golden era was the movie musical factory, but it has been some time since the studio has taken on one of this scale. It is just like old times, eh? Fortunately, this Cyrano is worthy of that tradition — and then some.
Wright, no stranger to period pieces like Pride & Prejudice, Darkest Hour, Atonement and Anna Karenina, has brought almost a simplicity and quiet dignity to his first musical film. We have seen endless takes on the legend of the spirited and talented Cyrano, hampered only by his physical appearance (usually a long nose) in his hidden quest to express his feelings for the true love of his life, Roxanne. Based on the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand, it is a time-honored and much-honored role.
Jose Ferrer won a Best Actor Oscar playing the title character in a 1950 film. Gerard Depardieu received his only Oscar nomination when he took on the role in a French version. Christopher Plummer won a Tony on Broadway in a different musical version. I have no doubt that Peter Dinklage, transforming brilliantly here into the heart and soul of this man, will find his just rewards as well. He certainly deserves to.
There have also been countless takeoffs on story, most notably Steve Martin’s splendid contemporary Roxanne, but Wright’s new musical stays true to the original tone and dignity of the material. The film is set between 1640 and 1720 and shot magnificently — during the pandemic no less — on Italian locations. Screenwriter Erica Schmidt (who also happens to be married to Dinklage) has stayed within the basic bones of the story while employing the radical idea of losing the long nose — a staple of the character in nearly every other version. She and Wright also masterfully have made a musical where characters break from dialogue into song with such ease it doesn’t intrude at all, but rather feels natural, which is no easy feat.
Those achievements are based on an Off Broadway success — with music by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the band The National, and lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser — which has been adapted to the needs of a film version. The score beautifully complements the story without ever overpowering it, and there are several highlights from a cast with real musical chops, as it turns out. Standouts include the stunning battlefield anthem “Wherever I Fall,” “Close My Eyes” and an original for the film called “Every Letter,” but this is one score where each number has a purpose in moving the story along to a final act that is bittersweet, moving and quietly powerful in its sheer humanity and love.
Dinklage plays Cyrano as a member of the King’s Guard, as impressive at swordplay as he is at wordplay. His only drawback is his self-image, defined by his friend in the King’s Guard Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin) as “unique physique.” He has long been best friends with Roxanne (Haley Bennett), who appreciates his intellect and style to no end, but has no idea of Cyrano’s unrequited love he has secretly developed for her as they grew older. He believes his appearance is a non-starter for her so cannot bring himself to express his desires directly.
Roxanne is stuck with a suitor, the overbearing and imposing Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), with whom she sees no real love even as he lays claim to her. Being the good friend he is, Cyrano encourages a new King’s Guard recruit, the strapping but intellectually-challenged Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr), to seek a relationship with Roxanne, and vice versa. She falls instantly for him as he stands under her window and waxes poetic, appearing to improvise and rhapsodize about her. But all of those loving thoughts are straight from the mouth of Cyrano, who is coaching Christian out of sight. Through Christian, Cyrano is finally able to express his own thoughts towards Roxanne, and all the while she has no clue. Soon war beckons, the matters of the heart at hand grow more complicated. Cyrano, of course, rises to the occasion.
That this film was accomplished during the pandemic is significant. Its themes and the plight of its three main characters — all searching for human connection and love in a difficult time — should have real resonance for audiences in ways perhaps that are surprising.
Dinklage plays every aspect of the character from comedic to dramatic without a missing a beat or the substance of this extraordinary man. Although Cyrano has been played by way too many actors to count over the years, Dinklage makes it so fresh, so alive, and so potent it feels like we are seeing Cyrano depicted for the very first time.
Bennett is a revelation, a lovely voice paired with an innate understanding of Roxanne’s complications in love and life. Harrison is terrific and gives real depth to Christian where it would be easy to discount the a guy who gets a head start based on appearance and swagger. Mendelsohn in an unsympathetic role brings fire to it and dimension as you might expect from this superb actor. The cast, as I say, cannot be better.
Visually, Cyrano is gorgeous, from the production and set design of six-time Oscar-nominated Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer to the splendid costumes of Massimo Cantini Parrini and the exceptional cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, especially in those battle scenes.
Cyrano will open in select theaters December 31, and roll out in the new year from MGM and United Artists Releasing. Producers are Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Guy Heeley.