The Peter Dinklage-directed musical has no nose for the poetry or comedy of a classic love story

Cyrano’s lively verses are the framework on which the story rests. But the spirit of the source seems lost in this musical translation.

“Panache” versus “Pride” condenses the fundamental difference in approach between Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac and the musical interpretation of Joe Wright in 2021 Cyrano. The different last word spoken by the titular hero in his last breath in the new narrative gives some insight into what he does well and what he doesn’t. As a filmmaker, Wright has always taken pride in his literary adaptations (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Woman at the Window) but what they have often lacked is panache. At best, they have deep musicality. At worst, they suffer from distracting theatrics. Cyrano falls somewhere in between. Although completed with score and lyrics by members of The National, it fails to capture the spirit, joy and meaning of an epic romance. Neither word fights nor sword fights have any spice, rhythm or energy.

This quasi-historical treatment fails to negotiate a free and fluid transition between reality and fantasy, characteristic of any good musical where life appears like a symphony in search of its next move.

“Panache”, a word introduced into the English language by the French play, not only described the feathery plume on Cyrano’s hat, but also symbolized his flamboyance, courage and selfless devotion to high ideals. He is a man who is introduced in the opening moments (of the play and) of the film, chasing a seasoned actor off the stage, defeating a vain aristocrat in a duel, and throwing down a sack of gold to cover the loss suffered by the customers – while singing a ballad about himself. Admittedly, the plume feeds Cyrano’s pride but stems from insecurity. In another revision of the source material, Erica Schmidt’s screenplay (based on her own musical) replaces Cyrano’s long nose with a short stature to accommodate the star, her own husband Peter Dinklage. Insecurity over his height and appearance is why Cyrano believes himself unworthy of the love of his childhood friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett).

So he channels his unrequited feelings by helping Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome but inarticulate cadet who caught his eye, by writing some moving courtship letters. Convinced that he can never be loved for what he is, Cyrano can only enjoy the indirect satisfaction of an epistolary romance through Christian. It is only in his final moments that he will realize how his pride has kept him from revealing the truth to Roxanne. At the end of the play, Cyrano reassures himself that at least his idea of ​​panache endures even in death. In the musical, he laments that his ego is the cause of his misery, that he loved his pride more than Roxanne. The market for an eternal ideal over an unrealized romance is their common destiny.

Peter Dinklage (R) as Cyrano

More melancholy than joyful, Cyrano is a melodious treatise on how high ideals come at the expense of personal desire. In a showcase of her dramatic if not vocal range, Dinklage taps into the self-loathing caused by our tendency to let the judgments of others color our own perception. Despite his selfless and lofty ideals, Cyrano is most affected by his inability to meet the demands of his own aesthetic ideal. When Roxanne confesses her love for Christian and asks Cyrano to help her in her love affair, the grief visible on Dinklage’s face is as real as it comes. It has always been an ironic story. Cyrano’s passionate eloquence earns Christian the heart of the woman Cyrano loves. Roxanne won’t find out the real author of the love letters until Cyrano loses all chance of a happy ending. The irony is not only rooted in the drama, but inscribed in the very structure of a story about appearances versus truth.

Cyrano critic Peter Dinklageled musical has no nose for poetry or classic love story comedy

Ben Mendelsohn (L) as De Guiche

Besides Dinklage, Bennett is also reprising his role from the musical. Though radiant as Roxanne with an intelligence to match her beauty, even this contemporary tale can find no room for any motivation in her life apart from the desire to find a handsome husband with a gift for words. Ben Mendelsohn is a handsome De Guiche, the antithesis of Cyrano driven by nothing but personal desire. When Roxanne refuses to accept his proposal and marries Christian instead, de Guiche uses his power and influence to send Cyrano and Christian’s regiment to the front lines of the war, bringing the story to its tragic conclusion.

Cyrano critic Peter Dinklageled musical has no nose for poetry or classic love story comedy

Haley Bennett as Roxanne

Harrison Jr. plays Christian as more than a handsome goof, expressing the frustration of a man who struggles to find the words to express his love with clarity and passion. Love can leave you speechless, with words painfully beyond your reach. With Harrison Jr. cast as Christian and Bashir Salahuddin as Cyrano’s closest confidant, Le Bret, the film follows a recent tradition of changing the race of key characters in period pieces. If a society discriminates based on a person’s stature and status, you better believe that society will also discriminate based on skin color. Like many recent movies that have used the colorblind cast, Cyrano also doesn’t bother to consider how race affects the lives of its characters.

Cyrano critic Peter Dinklageled musical has no nose for poetry or classic love story comedy

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (R) as Christian de Neuvillette

One of the play’s most defining moments is when Christian woos Roxanne from below his balcony with Cyrano giving him lines from the shadows. Reimagined as a triet in the film, the scene captures their desire, but it lacks its usual power. In an obvious miscalculation, the comic relief of the source material is almost entirely neutralized. The most poignant moment has nothing to do with the central love triangle: the sequence of “Wherever I fallfinds embattled soldiers conveying their last wishes to their loved ones before a suicidal battle. What little sense Wright has for sensuality or choreography is seen in a sequence set in Ragueneau’s pastry shop, where bakers knead dough while Dinklage sings “your name.”

Since the music doesn’t work in perfect tandem with the visuals, the results are far from stunning. Although the songs borrow from modern rap, gospel and R&B traditions, the end result suffers from a bland homogeneity. No one here has the voice to belt out the showstoppers. Dinklage’s baritone has a warmth and clarity, but not the power of Matt Berninger. Although Mendelsohn relishes the challenge, his “what i deserve“solo is truly testing the limits of his abilities. Bennett, however, possesses a voice that is velvety enough to soften the rough octaves of his fellow crooners.

When singing and choreography organically converge with dialogue, the musical can transcend the artifice of its form. Song and dance numbers can express what mere words cannot and offer cathartic release. at Cyrano the lively verse is the framework on which the story rests. But the spirit of the source seems lost in this musical translation. No period-specific ensemble, corset, or macabre makeup can transport us like the worms themselves. While you can forgive the lack of panache, you can’t forgive the lack of poetry.

Cyrano is now available for rental and purchase on Google Play Movies, YouTube and iTunes.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and music writer based in Bengaluru.

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