Friday, February 25, 2022

Cyrano, the Musical

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the real-life figure on whom Rostand’s hero was based, is considered one of the first science fiction writers. Depictions of him usually show a prominent but not extraordinarily large nose. Since Rostand presumably exaggerated a little, it seems fair for this new take on Cyrano de Bergerac to posit a different physical source for his romantic insecurities. His friend Le Bret gets away with the term “distinctive physique,” so we’ll use that too. Regardless, the swashbuckler is still quite handy with both words and sabers in Joe Wright’s Cyrano—by the way, it is also a musical—which opens today nationwide.

His nose is no longer conspicuous, but this is still
Cyrano de Bergerac. Despite the changes of screenwriter Erica Schmidt’s adaption (based on the stage musical she also penned), this is still Cyrano, so you should know what that means. The roguish soldier excels at poetry and duels, but he quietly carries a torch for his cousin Roxanne, fearing she would reject him, because of his physique. Instead, he aids his doltish but handsome new colleague Christian de Neuvillette to woo her. This time around, his obvious rival, the Count de Guiche is much slimier and his interest in Roxanne is decidedly more exploitative. If you need a fuller refresher on Rostand’s original source material, check out the 1950 film starring Jose Ferrer (it streams on Tubi, Kanopy, and several other sites).

Frankly, Peter Dinklage might be the best de Bergerac since Ferrer. He has the right swaggering physicality. Whatever their preconceptions might be, viewers will buy into him as a formidable swordsman and dissolute carouser. It turns out Dinklage also has a pleasingly character-tinged baritone voice, vaguely reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. He is a great romantic hero, who pines hard and banters amusingly with Bashir Salahuddin, whose Le Bret is more memorable than most of his predecessors.

However, Hayley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are both rather bland as Roxanne and Christian, even though their singing voices are quite nice. However, the always reliable Ben Mendelsohn is spectacularly sleazy and moustache-twistingly villainous as the nasty de Guiche. He is a piece of work, but that really raises the stakes and heightens the tension.

As for the tunes, they largely hit the same notes, over and over. Ironically, the most powerful and distinctive song (and the one that really sticks with you) does not feature any of the primary cast-members. Instead, “Wherever I Fall” is a number for the “chorus” that expresses the eve-of-battle thoughts of average rank-and-file soldiers as they face their impending mortality. The lyrics are genuinely moving and the performances (including Glen Hansard of
Once as a guard) are pitch-perfect. In contrast, the rest of the tunes fit the mood well enough, but they all blend together.

Songs or no songs, Wright’s conception of
Cyrano de Bergerac just works on a fundamental dramatic level. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey make the Noto, Sicily locations pop off the screen. His restless, sweeping camera gives this Cyrano an epic romantic vibe that contrasts with the sedate staginess of previous productions. When we see this Cyrano going to war, we understand full well not a lot of his comrades will be coming home with him.

Unconventional casting has become a trend lately, but unlike mere gender-swap gimmicks, Schmidt’s re-conception of Cyrano for Dinklage (her husband incidentally) comes across as a well-thought-out artistic decision and an inspired bit of casting. It looks great, while Dinklage and Mendelsohn stoke its fire and passion. It must be great, since many of us critics still remember it, after its bumped numerous times since our initial press screenings. Highly recommended for everyone who digs the
de Bergerac story, Cyrano opens today (2/25) nationwide, including the AMC Lincoln Square in New York.