Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Joe Wright — one of the last true madmen in Hollywood cinema — rebounds from the folly of his “Woman in the Window” with a full-throated musical adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac” soundtracked by The National, shot during COVID on Sicily (with hundreds of lavishly costumed extras singing a mope rock banger on the snowy peak of an active volcano!), and starring Peter Dinklage as a lovelorn poet who possesses the courage to sword-fight 10 men at a time but not the pride to confess his feelings to the one woman he’s loved for all eternity.
Maybe it’s just the clown makeup and corsets talking, but there are moments during Wright’s “Cyrano” — such as the literal rap battle during which Cyrano trades rhymes with a foe while they fence to the death — that delude you into thinking this must be the most gonzo work of mainstream art that someone has made in defiance of a plague since “The Decameron.” Is it good? In parts! Is it intoxicated with the same demented bravado that its namesake embodies when he sneaks behind the enemy lines of the Franco-Spanish War, but tragically lacks whenever he’s alone with his true love Roxanne (a ravishing Haley Bennett, with whom Wright himself is besotted in real life)? Absolutely. And that’s plenty to sing about.
For all of the insanity that Wright spirits into this project, however, the credit for its most unexpected ideas belongs to playwright and screenwriter Erica Schmidt, who first brought this musical version of “Cyrano” to life on stage in 2018. Wright surely recognized the genius of Dinklage’s casting in that production; not only does the actor’s singing voice echo the signature baritone of The National frontman Matt Berninger, but his “unique physique” lends Cyrano a far more poignant reason for his insecurity than the character’s traditional, cartoon proboscis. But even so, I suspect that what really lit a fire under Wright’s ass wasn’t just the source material, but also the chance to adapt it under the most psychotic of circumstances.
A shoot-the-moon stylist who isn’t afraid to work without a safety net (even if that means winding up in director ICU, right next to director jail, after every second movie he makes), Wright is someone who’s always been creatively inspired by a bind. In addition to directing several films about people who discover their true potential with their backs against the wall (e.g. “Hanna,” “The Darkest Hour”), Wright’s finest effort — a dazzlingly intricate “Anna Karenina” that warped the Russian novel into a snow-globe — was re-conceived from the ground up less than two months before the first day of shooting because the auteur had a radical new vision of what it should be. Wright sympathizes with Cyrano’s boldness and bluster, and wants so badly for this silver-tongued lovefool to risk falling on his face; he knows that the rewards can be worth it.
His “Cyrano” doesn’t waste any time swinging for the fences, as it begins with Roxanne launching into the first of the film’s many semi-conversational songs while ensconced in one of Massimo Cantini Parrini’s wonderfully operatic costumes. It’s an accurate preview of what’s to come: Lush, light on its feet, and more eccentric than it is involving. Bennett makes for a flawless Roxanne, exuding a flush-cheeked warmth that’s fringed with just a hint of vanity; she may be framed as an innocent in the love rhombus that forms as this story takes shape, but the value she places on looks is at the center of this whole mess.
Roxanne is kept by the rich and repulsive De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, great despite his obvious ability to do this kind of villain role in his sleep), a typical situation for a beauty of her time. As her maid cracks: “Children need love, adults money.” Alas, the moment that Roxanne locks eyes with a handsome soldier across a crowded room (Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the mutually infatuated Christian), she feels her needs being rearranged in a hurry. What an unfortunate turn of events for our poor Cyrano, who’s yearned for Roxanne since they were young, but always assumed that someone so fair would never “settle” for a man of stature. Several characters chide Cyrano for thinking so little of his crush, but the way Roxanne swoons for the first strapping hunk to walk through the door makes it easy to understand our hero’s concerns.
As those of us who regularly watch the Uma Thurman/Janeane Garofolo classic “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” on cable will be able to predict, Cyrano soon hatches a plan to express his emotions without risking potential rejection: He will write letters to Roxanne under Christian’s identity, and enjoy their ensuing romance secondhand. “I will make you eloquent,” he says to the tongue-tied soldier, “while you will make me handsome.” Of course things quickly grow more complicated from there, building to the stage world’s second-most famous balcony scene before moving into much darker territory in a way that will surprise people who mostly know this story via the Steve Martin vehicle “Roxanne” or any of the countless sitcoms that have borrowed its most iconic beats.
But this “Cyrano” is all about melody, or lack thereof (as is often the case). Co-written by Berninger and his wife Carin Besser, the unfussy lyrics add some easy zest to the kind of epistolary romance that’s often so enervating to watch on-screen, as Cyrano and the rest of the cast belt out their feelings — almost exclusively to themselves, and not to each other. With few choruses and even fewer hooks, most of the musical numbers sound like the ramblings of a racing mind, leaving the film’s army of dancers to supply too much of the swoon and spectacle.
All the same, that spectacle often proves swoon-worthy, with highlight sequences including the Broadway-accented “I want” song that Christian and the rest of his garrison perform on a Sicilian rock fort (one of the film’s many astonishing locales), and the part where Mendelsohn storms into town on a cloud of Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque cheese guitar. Most of the ditties sound more like half-finished The National demos; Dinklage, Harrison, Bennett and the rest can carry a tune and then some, but only a cameo appearance by troubadours Glen Hansard, Sam Amidon, and Scott Folan compels the movie to serve up a meatier song. It’s an outlier in a movie that swirls together too many strong ingredients for any one of them to leave much of a taste.
Any one of them except for Peter Dinklage. The actor has never shied away from roles that hinge on his size — in large part, one imagines, because he’s only been offered so many alternatives — but his Cyrano allows him to confront the insecurities that come with any physical difference more candidly than ever before. “Cyrano de Bergerac” is nothing if not a tragedy about a proud man diminished by self-doubt, Dinklage’s implosive performance is so poignant for how Cyrano struggles to escape the atonality of his own thoughts.
“My heart’s not even angry, that’s just the way that it breaks” he raps in that “Hamilton”-ready duel at the start of the movie, and while most of the ensuing drama is stifled by Wright’s madcap staging (which demands all of our attention) and the loose-fitting modernity that it wears, the wastefulness of Cyrano’s self-fulfilling prophecy always manages to cut through the noise.
“Cyrano” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. United Artists will release it in theaters on Friday, December 31.