Many great actors have played Cyrano de Bergerac over the years, including José Ferrer, Christopher Plummer, Gérard Depardieu, Kevin Kline and Steve Martin, if you count – and why not? – the 1987 modern comedy Roxane.
The latest to join their distinguished company is Peter Dinklage, and he is the rare actor do not wearing a fake nose for the role. Here, it is not a big schnoz but rather the small stature of Cyrano which makes him think that he is unworthy of Roxanne, the woman he loves, interpreted by Haley Bennett.
This isn’t the only major change from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 tragicomic play. This solid and sometimes enchanting film, simply titled Cyrano, was adapted by Erica Schmidt from her 2019 musical, with a score and songs by band members The National. Their soft and dark melodies bring a decidedly modern touch to the story, which takes place between the 17th and 18th centuries. While Cyrano de Bergerac usually takes place in Paris, the film, shot mainly in Sicily, does not specify an exact location.
Apart from these changes, it’s the same story. Cyrano, a respected soldier in the king’s army, is renowned and feared for his superb swordsmanship and cutting wit, both of which have made him such powerful enemies as the Count de Guiche, played by a scowling Ben Mendelsohn. .
Cyrano is also deeply in love with Roxanne, a longtime friend who admires her confrontational spirit and her way with words. But Roxanne has fallen in love with Christian, a dashing young soldier — played by a very good Kelvin Harrison Jr. — who has just joined Cyrano’s regiment. Cyrano assumes the role of intermediary and even goes so far as to write incredibly eloquent love letters to Roxanne, passing them off as Christian.
At the climax of this wacky romantic triangle, Roxanne stands at her bedroom window as the hopelessly inarticulate Christian tries to woo her, with some much-needed nudges from Cyrano, lurking in the shadows. At some point, Cyrano takes over, and he gives free rein to his passionate feelings in a cute duet between him and a still unsuspecting Roxanne.
Fun Fact: Dinklage and screenwriter Schmidt are a couple, as are Bennett and the film’s director, Joe Wright. Think of it as a romantic behind-the-scenes footnote to a film whose spirit is decidedly romantic. Wright’s cinema has a pleasant old-fashioned lavishness, thanks to set designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designers Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran, who are Oscar-nominated for their dazzling work here.
As he has done in past movies like Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina, Wright controls the camera with fluid grace, allowing us to see the actors and dancers move through space without any of the busy cuts you get in so many contemporary musicals. Bennett is a trained singer and she delivers the best musical performance in the film. his Roxanne gets really emotional when called upon to sing.
Dinklage also has a musical background – he was the frontman of a ’90s punk band called Whizzy – and he expresses all of Cyrano’s wishes with a deep, soulful baritone. He’s an inspired choice for the role: as Tyrion Lannister, whom Dinklage played to perfection game of thronesCyrano is always the smartest person in the room, easy to underestimate but hard to defeat in a battle of wits or arms.
But Dinklage shows you the pain deep in Cyrano’s heart and makes you feel the sting of his unrequited love. Some purists may miss that big nose, but there’s something about the lack of prosthetic enhancements that makes Dinklage’s performance all the more poignant: what you see on screen is all him, nothing more and nothing less.
This disarming sincerity applies to the film as a whole. It’s not always the most graceful retelling of this oft-told story, but it’s hard not to admire Wright’s conviction and sometimes wild audacity. Only a truly committed director would have chosen to shoot a climactic battle scene 16,000 feet above sea level on the side of Mount Etna, an active volcano. It’s a showy flourish, to be sure, but also appropriate for a story of such great lyrical passion.