Cyrano: Unabashed Romance, by Tyler Smith
Joe Wright’s Cyrano is beautifully conceived, confidently executed, and supremely entertaining. It features lavish sets and costumes, gorgeous choreography, and touching, heartfelt performances. It grabs ahold of the viewer and doesn’t let go until its quiet, melancholy conclusion. it confidently, patiently convinces even the most skeptical filmgoer to let go of his suspicion and cynicism and give himself over to the film’s unabashed romanticism. Its modern musical retelling of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac is so naturalistic and unforced that it feels as fresh and bold as any previous adaptation, if not more so. Truly, Cyrano is a marvelous film and one of the best of the year.
The story – so familiar to moviegoers by now – involves a warrior poet named Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) too self-conscious about his perceived physical shortcomings to declare his love for the pure and beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett). Soon Roxanne becomes enamored with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Cyrano sees a way to finally state his feelings: he will give Christian the proper words with which to woo Roxanne and will thus love her by proxy.
Cyrano’s tale has been told many times before, but Joe Wright wisely ignores that fact and embraces the inherent power of the story, rather than try to do some kind of clever, self-aware riff on the material. The result is an often-heartbreaking film about loneliness and longing that somehow manages to be just as romantic as much more straightforward love stories. Wright steers directly into the melodrama of the story and doesn’t look back, trusting his actors and composers to both elevate and ground the familiar character beats.
Wright is wise to do this, as his cast shows they are more than up to the challenge, injecting the material with such energy and humanity that it’s hard not to empathize with their heightened emotions. As Cyrano, Peter Dinklage delivers the best performance of his career. He is brilliant and extremely capable, able to compose beautiful poetry even in the midst of dominating an enemy in battle. He is nevertheless insecure, sure that his small stature will prevent others from ever loving him. Whether he feels this is as it should be is only ever suggested in pained looks and slumped shoulders. Dinklage brings these contradictory elements together to form a fully-developed character that many in the audience will recognize, possibly in themselves; a strong, capable, loyal person convinced that, for the most superficial of reasons, they don’t deserve love. The tragedy of Cyrano is made plain in every scene, but Dinklage is smart enough to keep the character from becoming a martyr. Cyrano’s plight is one of his own making, arising out of his own cynicism and sense of pride. This allows Cyrano – who could so easily become saintly in the hands of a lesser actor – to be a real, flesh and blood person whose flaws must be overcome just like everybody else’s.
Similarly, it would be easy for both Roxanne and Christian to become ciphers; mere objects for Cyrano to manipulate. Instead, both characters are allowed real moments of loneliness and desperation. Haley Bennett has a particularly difficult job, as she must rise above the “object of affection” archetype that Roxanne could so easily become. She could also appear too easily duped by Cyrano’s poetry, but the filmmakers and Bennett wisely portray Roxanne as too intelligent to simply accept this unusual situation. Instead, she is constantly assessing and analyzing, trying to figure out the strange inconsistencies in her burgeoning relationship with Christian. As such, our affinity for Roxanne is earned, as she is allowed to be multifaceted rather than a simple prize.
The actors are helped by truly effective musical numbers, which can be as epic or as intimate as the scene requires. Many of these sequences involve impromptu dancing by the performers and Wright choreographs this transition so seamlessly that we don’t even question its validity. Soldiers’ battle training maneuvers begin to take on more fluid movements until, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, they are all dancing in unison as the music builds to its crescendo. Quiet soliloquies slowly begin to sound more lyrical until we find ourselves in the middle of a mournful song. The best directors understand that the musical elements of these films flow naturally from the emotional core of the characters and Joe Wright works extremely hard at making these moments seem effortless.
A film as flagrantly romantic as Cyrano has its work cut out for it, especially in a filmgoing atmosphere in which cynicism and self-consciousness are employed in even the most sincere mainstream entertainment. The film challenges us to leave our world-weariness at the door and allow ourselves to be swept up in the grandeur and overwhelming emotionality of the story. Were the writing or performances even slightly self-protective, the spell would be broken and the film would fail. Thankfully, though, Wright is so fully committed to creating an organic, honest, and unwavering portrait of romance – and all the pain and joy that comes with it – that we can’t help but share in its sincerity and hope. It truly is a modern masterpiece.