There was a real Cyrano de Bergerac who lived in France during the years 1619 to 1655. Whether he had a large nose and why he died at such a early age is not known but being a noted scholar, musician and duelist, he served as the inspiration for Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac”. In the play, which is written in rhyming couplets, it is his large schnoz that prevents him from professing his love for his distant cousin Roxane.
There have been many cinematic adaptions of “Cyrano” with Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” from 1987 and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s “Cyrano de Bergerac”(1990), starring Gerard Depardieu, being the most well-known. Totally forgotten is the first American-filmed version by Michael Gordon from 1950 starring Jose Ferrer in his Oscar-winning (YES!) performance. Directed on a shoestring budget, it has received only the occasional screening since it entered the public domain in the mid-1980s.
The current movie is based not on the play per se, but on the 2018 Off-Broadway musical adaptation by Erica Schmidt with Schmidt’s husband Peter Dinklage, well known for his numerous supporting roles in movies such as “The Station Agent” and, of course, the TV series “Game of Thrones”, as Cyrano. The movie, like the original play, takes place in the year 1640 during the reign of Louis XIII of France. We are in Paris in the theatre of the Hotel de Bourgogne and the performance is about to begin. In the audience is Christian a handsome soldier newly arrived in town to join his regiment. When he sees Roxane in in the distance, and she sees him, it’s love at first sight. It’s a beautiful moment. Roxane has the best seat in the house because she is the guest of one of the most powerful men in France the Count de Guiche. Christian later learns of the Count’s scheme to mary Roxane to the Viscount Valvert a soldier in his retinue. In return, he will take care of her father’s debts. Being already married, he cannot marry her himself but, with this arrangement, he will have access to his deputy’s beautiful new wife. And in the background we have Cyrano, who has loved Roxane all his life but has never been able to confess how he feels because of his appearance.
Director Joe Wright manages this opening sequence with style. Rightly famous (or infamous) for his adaptations of such novels as “Pride and Prejudice”, “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina”, all starring Keira Knightly, his movies are known more for their faithfulness to their source material than any directorial imprint. However, the sets, costumes, cinematography, and the movement of the actors within the frame during these opening scenes are thrilling. Haley Bennett (Ms. Joe Wright) radiates beauty as Roxane; Ben Mendelsohn is deliciously cunning as Guiche while Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Christian looks like a god.
Unfortunately, all of this cinematic beauty dissipates on the arrival, literally onstage, of Cyrano (Dinklage) who promptly banishes a buffoonish actor and dispatches Valvert in a duel. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just not that exciting .Yes, those big expressive eyes show the hurt and the pain, but he never inhabits the role in a dashing Burt Lancaster swashbuckling kind of way. His scenes with Bennett work well enough. However, after Cyrano and Christian become friends (they are in the same regiment), and Cyrano agrees to the play’s central ruse – he will write Christian’s love letters to Roxane because Christian possesses not a trace of epistolatory eloquence – the magic gradually fades.
You have to be able to buy into “Cyrano” with its silly conceits and silly plot dynamics. More artifice than artistry, the second half of the play is always a bit of a chore. So, it’s not totally Harrison’s fault that after he opens his mouth to become Cyrano’s mouthpiece he is no longer a god. It’s a thankless role, just ask Rick Rossovich. And, although Vincent Perez had his few moments of fame in the Rappeneau version, I’m not sure if any actor could truly shine in this part. Dinklage and Harrison are also handicapped by having to break into random song accompanied by some of the most uninspired melodies ever to accompany an alexandrine couplet courtesy of Aaron and Bryce Dessner (from the rock group “The National”), who also did the music for the stage version. Bennett and Mendelsohn keep their fires burning but the film ultimately disappoints, especially after such an auspicious beginning.
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