Cyrano (4*) - A wonderful movie with a powerful performance from Dinklage - even if the music isn’t all that great.

Oscar Nominations:

Costume Design (Massimo Cantini Parrini/Jacqueline Durran)

Cyrano is surprisingly good!  Powered by a stellar performance from Peter Dinklage, and ably assisted by Haley Bennett as his love interest, the movie tells the powerful story of a man’s unrequited love that is so strong that, in the end, it consumes him completely.  

Cyrano de Bergerac was a French literary figure who lived and worked in the early 1600s, overlapping Shakespeare.  Three centuries later, another French writer, Edmond Rostand, wrote a play, Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), loosely based on Cyrano’s life, and focusing on a particularly large part of his anatomy, his nose, which, apparently caused Cyrano much grief and embarrassment.  The story, perhaps because it gets at the insecurities of many – if not most – men in their pursuit of romance, has since been made into four movies before this one – a 1925 French silent movie; a 1950 American adventure comedy film starring Jose Ferrer in the title role; then the 1987 American comedy, Roxanne, starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah; and, three years later, another French version starring Gerard Depardieu.

In every case in all of these previous productions, the Cyrano with the large nose was reinforced either with obvious prosthetics (or, in the case of Depardieu, without the need for much cosmetic enhancement).  All of these movies suffered from the distinct problem of turning the Cyrano character into someone with a distinctly comical appearance.  And that made the character less relatable to the audience – and more distant.  

This Cyrano changes that formula and creates a movie where the emotional engagement is deep and meaningful.  By changing the physical issue from one of a problem nose to one of “short stature”, the nature of the relationship between Cyrano and the audience changes dramatically.  It is no longer something comical, but something profoundly intrinsic to the man himself.  Like a lot of people, I didn’t pay much attention to Dinklage before his outstanding performance in The Station Agent (03).  There he proved that his “short stature” did not diminish, in any way, his emotional capacity as a human being.  His achondroplasia form of dwarfism is entirely physical and has, obviously, not had any impact on his mental or emotional capabilities.  Any remaining doubts of his talents were quickly dispelled with his powerful, Emmy-winning, performance as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

As Cyrano, then, Dinklage brings an entirely different problem to the story rather than a comical nose – a difference that drives the story in new and more powerful directions.  We know Dinklage’s differences are not the result of some makeup prosthetics, but, rather are at the core of his being and, therefore, the challenges his Cyrano faces – presenting a “handsome” visage to his intended Roxanne – are much more grounded;  the emotional impact is greatly intensified and, importantly, transferable to the audience.  One has to wonder if the strength of Dinklage’s performance derives from some real, earlier experiences, similar to those of his character. As Jason Bailey put it (New York Times; Why is Cyrano Still So Potent?…, 2/25/22)  “He’s the kind of person we all like to imagine ourselves to be – confident, brave and witty – and the kind of person we know we are – sensitive, tentative and delicate…(he – meaning Dinklage – is) the key to our identification with this character.”

Dinklage is so good in Cyrano that he forces our attention almost exclusively on him.  It is true that this is a musical and his gravelly voice isn’t the best, but we also don’t care because we feel the honesty of his emotions.  But can a single character carry an entire movie?

Haley Bennett as Cyrano’s Roxanne is a good choice.  She displays passion well and her scene in her bed virtually making love to the letters she has received is full of nearly-erotic energy.  It also helps, since this is a musical, that she can sing.  She is in a well practiced comfort zone with Dinklage and their love for their craft flows over to their characters.  (It should probably be noted that Dinklage and Bennett played these same roles in a musical over two years in 2018 and 2019, first in Connecticut and then Off-Broadway in New York.)  And it should also be noted that Dinklage’s real-life wife, Erica Schmidt, wrote the screenplay for this movie while Bennett’s partner and father of her child, Joe Wright, directed it.  Clearly there was a lot of intimate involvement leading to their inspired performances. (The film also has genetic history in movies like Atonement (07), Pride & Prejudice (05) and Darkest Hour (17) all of which were directed by Joe Wright and shared crew members in the Costume and Production Design, Cinematography, and Film Editing departments.)  

Despite two terrific actors and some strong heritage in earlier, very good films, Cyrano did not fare so well with either viewers or critics.  The not-so-good audience reaction is based, though, on only about 11,000 ratings which is very small for an Oscar-nominated film.  Part of that might have been because of its limited distribution.  Now that it is more available on multiple streaming and rental platforms, that might change.  Critical reaction, though, has been pretty uniform – they all thought Dinklage and Bennett were wonderful, and enjoyed the costumes, makeup, choreography, and the production design and location shots (filmed almost entirely in Sicily, Italy).  But the one thing that consistently hurt the film in critical reviews was the music.  Predictably, if you’re going to do a musical and the music isn’t “memorable”, then the movie is not likely to succeed.  There are about a dozen original songs in this movie and while none of them are ear worms, I didn’t think they were all that bad – its just that you want something more – especially with Dinklage’s memorable performance.  The melodies were all composed by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, members of the indie rock band, The National – unfortunately, I have never heard of them.  Two of their songs, “Madly” and “Wherever I Fall” are particularly good, but mostly for their lyrics – I can’t exactly remember the melodies and I just watched the movie two days ago!

This film is really good, especially Peter Dinklage.  For a great evening’s entertainment, I recommend Cyrano. (4*)

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