Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"There has simply never been a better Cyrano than Peter Dinklage."

There are happy occasions in cinema when a talented actor emerges who fits a classic role so perfectly that it might have been written for him. For all the praise rightly heaped upon the 1990 version with Gerard Depardieu, the fact is that there has simply never been a better Cyrano than Peter Dinklage. This is not simply down to the fortuitousness of his size, which stands in for the famous nose as the cause of the character’s self-doubt, but also to the ease with which he convinces as an individual vastly more intelligent than almost everyone else around him, and evinces the particular loneliness which that brings. Intelligence, whilst it can be played down (as it is here by his co-star Kelvin Harrison Jr, who plays Christian), cannot be convincingly faked, making it a valuable asset for a star, and Dinklage has a particular line in intellectual jadedness which suits this character to a tee.

As those already familiar with the story will know, Cyrano is not wholly alone in his gift. There is another resident of his city who possesses a formidable mind, but her path in life is further complicated by two things: her gender and her celebrated beauty. Haley Bennett is the best Roxanne we have seen to date, building on the promise she showed the previous year in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ sublime Swallow. She and Dinklage performed their roles together on stage in Erica Schmidt’s musical adaptation of the Edmond Rostand classic. If there’s one area where Dinklage’s talents are limited, it’s the singing, but he’s well aware of his range and the film (like the stage version before it) is constructed so as to work around that, focusing instead on the expressiveness he can bring to his voice. Bennett has no difficulty with the singing and delivers the soaring moments of emotion that the film needs in a manner which will satisfy fans of old-time Hollywood musicals even as it moves beyond the mechanics of conventional romance.

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Whilst Roxanne is excited by Christian’s appearance, it is her mind which truly yearns, expressed here in a song which captures not only the frustrations faced by women in the period but also those experienced by anyone deprived of intellectual stimulation by the slow pace at which ideas could then be exchanged. Harrison Jr gives us a Christian who does not seem stupid so much as tongue-tied in the presence of the woman he adores. He is a sort of everyman whom viewers will find easy to relate to, but he is not her equal. As such, he is forced to prevail upon Cyrano to write letters for him which will give voice to his love – a correspondence complicated, of course, by the fact that Cyrano loves Roxanne himself. What the film does well is to capture the essentially different nature of each man’s love, and to question the conventional interpretation which says that Cyrano’s is deeper or more pure. It takes a more literary approach to its subject and, in doing so, restores the ambiguities of Rostand’s original work.

With a limited number of locations, most of them elegant yet sparsely decorated, the film retains something of its theatrical origins and keeps the focus on the players. For all the eloquence of the words, Dinklage, caught in close-ups, can say just as much with his face. He also proves to be a dab hand at sword fighting in the introductory scenes, which, as they mingle strokes of the blade with cutting words, do a good job of illustrating how intelligence can be an asset in a duel. The finesse of this sequence also contrasts effectively with later scenes depicting the brutality of war, which remain true to the period setting and yet deliver an atmosphere and supporting characters which we might habitually associate with 20th Century conflict. This helps the film to address secondary themes around grief, the loss of individuality, and the class system, which previous adaptations have shied away from.

At no point does Schmidt’s adaptation fall prey to the temptation to equate love with happiness, and the story’s darker currents remain true to the end, yet its has enough of spectacle to please the eye and more than enough wit to thrill the mind. Schmidt does not lean too heavily on the mechanic of deception but draws more deeply on the story’s emotional dynamics, and director Joe Wright directs with an assured hand, understanding when less is more, knowing when to step back from rapid-fire dialogue and give his actors room to breathe. Building on the promise of Atonement and his superb Anna Karenina, it is his most accomplished film to date.

Finally rescued from positioning as simple romance, yet no less enchanting in its celebration of human connection, no less heart-rending in its conclusions, this is Cyrano De Bergerac as it was meant to be. The infusion of song and the different intimacy made possible by film enhance rather than distract from the power of the play. It will reach well beyond fans of musicals or romantic comedies. It is an unmissable piece of cinema.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2022
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An accomplished wit who is fearful of rejection because of his physical appearance writes letters to help another man win the heart of the woman he loves in this musical version of the classic play.
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Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Erica Schmidt, based on the play by Edmond Rostand

Starring: Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Ben Mendelsohn, Joshua James

Year: 2021

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK, US, Canada


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