By Lynn Venhaus
A soaring symphony of romanticism, “Cyrano” is one of the most daring and best-looking films from last year.
Too self-conscious to woo Roxanne (Haley Bennett) himself, wordsmith Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) helps young Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) win her heart through love letters. The ruse will tangle their lives in unintended ways.
Sadly, its wider release wasn’t set until this February, although eligible for awards and played earlier elsewhere. The arthouse film just seemed to be one of the prestige awards-bait movies that got lost in the shuffle, so to speak. It is, however, nominated for three BAFTA awards, including Best Picture, and one Oscar nomination.
At once peculiar and precious, this film adaptation of Edmund Rostand’s 1897 play benefits from a breathtaking lush look. With his background in fine art, director Joe Wright has framed everything like a painting from the Renaissance – and moved the setting to Sicily.
The intricately detailed baroque production design is a wondrous sight to behold, outstanding craft work from Sarah Greenwood, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey has beautifully lit the interiors with flickering candles while drenching the Mediterranean exteriors with sun.
Frequent Wright collaborator Jacqueline Durran, a two-time Oscar winner for “Anna Karenina” and “Little Women,” designed the costumes for Roxanne while Massimo Cantini Parrini did the rest, and they both share an Oscar nomination for the work. (She could have easily scored another one for “Spencer” this year).
Not only is this sumptuous film a feast for the eyes but also the ears, with an intimate musical score by twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the indie-rock group The National, with lyrics by fellow bandmate Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser. They had all collaborated on Erica Schmidt’s 2018 stage musical. A new song, “Somebody Desperate,” plays over the end credits.
The bittersweet songs are gracefully delivered, tinged with an aching tenderness, as if singers are revealing their intensely personal monologues.
The pitch-perfect cast is fully immersed in the 17th century story, which has been presented in countless forms over the years – as radio, television, opera, theater, dance, and film. While it has received modern treatments, this version is steeped in the original’s classicism, which suits the performers well.
The love triangle resonates emotionally because of the actors’ strengths. Bennett is luminous and Harrison earnest as the lovestruck pair. With his sad eyes, Dinklage’s melancholy demeanor deepens the title character’s pain about unrequited love.
Cyrano is convinced that his appearance makes him unworthy of his friend Roxanne’s affections and once she falls for Christian, he helps foster the romance through his words, writing dazzling love letters she assumes are penned by her suitor.
Dinklage, undaunted by all the acclaimed actors who’ve played the role before, demonstrates both the wordplay and swordplay with ease. The character loses nothing in the switch from the presumed hideous bulbous nose to a dwarf, conveying his perceived inferiority.
As the hopelessly romantic and endlessly disappointed poet, he’s just as heartbreaking as Oscar winner Jose Ferrer was in the 72-year-old film — and one can imagine on stage in his most famous role.
Both Bennett and Dinklage reprise their roles from Schmidt’s musical, initially staged at the Goodspeed in Connecticut, then moved to off-Broadway with Jasmine Cephas-Jones replacing Bennett in 2019.
Schmidt has adapted it here for the film, still cut-to-the-essentials. (Fun fact: Bennett is the significant other of the director).
One of the best young actors working today, Harrison’s soulfulness hits the right notes. He projects Christian’s love as noble and true, which is even more heart-wrenching after he is spitefully sent off to war.
Scorned by Roxanne, De Guiche, the reprehensible duke played with such arrogant cruelty by Ben Mendelsohn, pushes Christian into wartime service, and Cyrano accompanies him as a cadet.
Wright has often demonstrated a flair for long tracking shots – for example, the five-minute Dunkirk scene in “Atonement” that was better than Christopher Nolan’s entire 2017 film, and on display here.
But he runs hot and cold – as reminded in the woefully misguided “The Woman in the Window” on Netflix last year. Yet, his films always have a delectable visual appeal.
Because of the stripped-down script, Wright seems to rush the ending to what had been a thoughtful rumination on longing and desire. Still, some minor characters come and go with little relevance.
Nevertheless, Wright maintains the overarching theme of pride. More haunting than hopeful, this “Cyrano” is an ambitious work of art that may be flawed script-wise, but its stunning look and strong performances keep it timeless.
“Cyrano” is a 2021 romantic drama musical directed by Joe Wright and stars Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ben Mendelsohn. It’s rated PG-13 for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material, and brief language, and the run time is 2 hours 4 minutes..It opened in theaters on Feb. 25. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.