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“Cyrano,” Reviewed: A Musical Adaptation Plagued by Niceness

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Joe Wright’s adaptation of the musical “Cyrano,” starring Peter Dinklage in the title role, has lavish production numbers that fill the screen with gaily costumed dancers. It has grandly decorative set pieces replete with sumptuous period designs seemingly plundered from the pre-revolutionary storerooms of Versailles. Yet the film, which opens on Friday, doesn’t contain an image as painterly as the opening shot of another new film, James Vaughan’s “Friends and Strangers,” which was made for what the director describes as a “micro-budget” in and around Sydney. There isn’t a composition as imaginative as those in Josephine Decker’s “The Sky Is Everywhere,” or a moment of choreography as deft as the one in Steven Soderbergh’s techno-thriller “Kimi,” in which the protagonist (Zoë Kravitz) struts through her loft while talking on the phone. In short, there’s neither poetry nor lyricism to Wright’s direction, neither thrills nor wonders in his filming of musical scenes. Instead, “Cyrano” is a thuddingly dull film that sinks under the ponderous undigested mass of its own bombast, squandering the talents of a fine cast and a fine concept.

The movie is based on a stage musical by Erica Schmidt, who is married to Dinklage; she also wrote the script. (The song lyrics are by the married couple Carin Besser, a former New Yorker fiction editor, and her husband Matt Berninger, the front man of the National, and the music is by Berninger’s bandmates Aaron and Bryce Dessner.) The outline sticks close to the five-act structure handed down by Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac ,” which, in turn, reflects aspects of the real life of de Bergerac, a seventeenth-century author and military officer, down to the details of the era of Louis XIV. But whereas Cyrano, in Rostand’s play, has a very large nose and therefore considers himself fatally unattractive to Roxanne, the Cyrano in Schmidt’s play and in the movie has dwarfism and considers himself undesirable for that reason. The change to the story is moving in its confrontation with prejudice against dwarfs, and its view of the emotional damage that such prejudices wreak on little people. This resonant core subject makes Wright’s myriad failures of style all the more dismaying—because they’re rooted in his concept of the main character.

The story involves a young woman named Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a poor but well-born orphan who’s sought in marriage by the middle-aged, arrogant Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn) but who only wants to marry for love. At a play in a theater where Cyrano, her longtime friend, makes a spectacle of himself, she falls in love at first sight with a young recruit in his outfit, Christian Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), whose physical beauty overwhelms her and who she hopes will be endowed with a literary wit to match. Their troop is on the verge of being sent to war. Roxanne, a lover of poetry, craves love letters, but the stolid Christian is no writer. Cyrano is, and volunteers to provide beautiful letters for Christian. The assignment comes easily to him because, unknownst to both Roxanne and Christian, he is in love with her. Far from impersonating Christian’s passions, he’ll merely be expressing his own.

What hollows out the film and makes it little but a decorative pageant is the thin portrayal of the glorious Cyrano, a character of more than decorative rhetoric whom the movie leaves with little else. The movie’s strongest and strangest view of Cyrano is at the start, when, at the theatre, Cyrano indecorously intrudes on the action to insult the lead actor in a poetic torrent. Cyrano challenges him to a duel, physically harasses him off the stage, and, then and there, takes up a challenge from Valvert (Joshua James), an effete poetaster who’s the duke’s wingman. But whatever hotheaded literary flair Wright lets Cyrano flaunt in that scene is lost in the sword-fighting sequences that follow—first, in the theatre, and then, later that night, on the street, when Cyrano is forced to confront and dispatch ten of the Duke’s men. In the latter scene, a superhero-like fantasy of whimsical death dealing, Wright displays the heights of his own choreographic inspiration. The movie is far less attentive to Cyrano’s rapier-like wit than to his actual rapier.

What’s absent, above all, is the querulous fury of Cyrano’s character. In Rostand’s play, he is not merely a valiant and respected warrior who’s also a poet, or vice versa. He’s a figure who revels in conflict, seeks to make enemies, and loves to be hated; his valor and romantic dash are inseparable from his rage, which is expressed with playful glitter to disguise its heat. In Wright’s version, Cyrano’s proud and vain outburst onstage is really just a performative bit of theater criticism, an act of sincere principle inseparable from his romantic devotion and his martial virtue. The movie turns the poet—a wild fantasist and a beguiler—into a stick figure of goodness. Dinklage, an actor of irrepressible vitality, gives it his all, but he can retrieve only hints of the energy that was cut from Rostand’s play. Roxanne displays decisive boldness in defying the duke to marry Christian, and she shows an all the more intrepid and dashing side in Rostand’s play when, after Christian and Cyrano are sent to battle, she manages to visit them on the battlefield. But in the movie she’s deprived of that audacity. Elsewhere, Wright’s admirably diverse casting leads to an odd and disturbing dynamic: Christian is a Black man whose words fail him—Cyrano even calls him “inarticulate”—and needs to be fed his lines by a white man who’s also his military superior.

The movie also deletes most of the historical specifics that tether the character to his real-life time and place near the center of French power. (I found myself thinking of Roberto Rossellini’s “The Taking of Power of Louis XIV,” which reveals the politics behind the spectacle of French culture.) Deprived of the fascinating particulars of history, “Cyrano” becomes a generic period piece and costume drama that waves its directorial hands vaguely at a remote past in order to spotlight elements of design. Deprived of the richness of the text, the movie’s concept and substance shift toward spectacle, which is exactly where Wright’s artistry doesn’t bear up.

The grandiose production of “Cyrano” lacks any sense of conviction or obsession. It never risks folly or exaggeration, never gets extreme. It remains stuck in a dull and reasonable moderation that replaces imagination with effort and ideas with size. To signify a plethora of letters, the film shows Christian in the street and Roxanne in her room surrounded by an airborne scatter of papers—a feeble one, not a shower or a blizzard, just an indicative desk’s-worth. The symmetry that Wright displays, in scenes of twirling dancers and of soldiers in training, is tempered and vague. The special effects that superimpose the three protagonists on one screen are fussy, literal, and the overhead geometrics are embarrassed and noncommittal. In his 2021 adaptation of “The Woman in the Window,” Wright evokes the protagonist’s psychological derangement by unleashing some impressively and disturbingly deranged images; he seems to have been inspired by the logic of their illogic. In “Cyrano,” the protagonists’ passions are tamped down, and the movie’s imagination is, too.

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