‘Cyrano’ Review: Film adaptation of musical misses mark
Though the 19th century play Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted countless times for the screen and stage since its premiere, the new prestige drama Cyrano is based most specifically on a 2018 stage musical of the same name.
Conceived by theater director Erica Schmidt, presumably with her husband Peter Dinklage in mind, the musical differs from the source material most notably by trading Cyrano’s trademark facial disfigurement with dwarfism as the protagonist’s primary obstacle. Despite this, the new adaptation remains true to the setting, story, and spirit of the original work but mangles so many aspects of the execution that it hardly seems to matter. It’s not as much of an unmitigated disaster as Dear Evan Hansen, but it’s not as far off as one may imagine.
Dinklage stars in the title role as a member of the French army in the mid-17th century who’s equal halves sharp-tongued wordsmith and sharp-tipped swordsmith.
We meet Cyrano as he verbally spars with a gussied-up actor mid-performance then physically spars with an upset audience member on-stage. Looking on from the balcony is Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a longtime friend of Cyrano for whom he has secretly carried a torch as long as they’ve been acquainted. She confides in him a love at first sight with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a newcomer to the military in Cyrano’s regiment and when Cyrano brings Roxanne up to Christian, he confesses a requisite affection. Sadly, Christian’s good looks don’t translate to sharp wit, leading Cyrano to offer his verbosity as he pens love letters to Roxanne under Christian’s name.
The biggest tragedy of Cyrano is that the music and lyrics come courtesy of members from the excellent rock band The National, who have made some of my favorite albums of the past 15 years. Guitarist brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner composed the music while lead singer Matt Berninger penned the lyrics along with his wife, Carin Besser. The Dessners are known for their technically intricate and sonically sophisticated guitar work with The National, but their range in these songs is frustratingly limited. Too many of these numbers sound nearly identical to one another, while the words don’t reveal the characters’ motivations as much as they simply underline plot points that are already obvious. Dinklage mournfully belts out Roxanne’s name so often, I half-expected Sting to come in beckoning her not to “put on the red light.”
It could be that musical range is intentionally myopic to cover for the undeveloped vocal talents of Dinklage and Bennett, who reprise their roles from the stage. Neither are necessarily poor singers, but they do rely on the kind of digital processing that has become alarmingly common in movie musicals the past 10 years.
In this recontextualized role, Dinklage does a fine job channeling Cyrano’s social shortcomings into poignant pathos, but Bennett falls totally flat in trying to make Roxanne an empathetic character. After her first meeting face-to-face with Christian, she would understandably be confused in trying to reconcile his simple disposition with his poetic prose. Instead of singing a song about that, she simply bellows “I want more” repeatedly in regards to a potential suitor, making her seem more of an entitled brat th an an unaware member of a bizarre love triangle.
Making Cyrano’s short stature a stumbling block for a potential partnership with Roxanne is a wise refresh of the original tale, given Dinklage’s affinity for the role, but there is one change that wasn’t quite as well though through.
While I appreciate the colorblind casting of Harrison as Christian, it’s not an especially great look for him to be cast as a slow-witted Black man who seeks the aid of a white savior for guidance in his love letters. The staging of one major scene, in particular, robs Christian of his agency in ways that would seem hoary and tacky even when race isn’t factored in but even more cringe-inducing when it is.
Cyrano may have worked better in the more intimate setting of musical theater, but as a film, it comes up short of the mark.
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