Many people like musicals, and they deserve just as much respect as everybody else. Reviewing Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac on its first London performance in 1898, the critic Max Beerbohm predicted that its hero – an exceptionally talented soldier and poet whose only obstacle in life is the large nose that thwarts his quest for love – would become as inevitable a fixture in romance as Don Quixote or Don Juan, Punch or Pierrot, and, like them, would never date. “Cyrano will soon crop up in opera and ballet,” he forecast. And in a musical too, now.
The standout among the countless adaptations in many forms has been the 1990 film starring Gérard Depardieu, so forcefully appealing despite an obscene prong of a proboscis. The director Joe Wright says that he saw it when he was an anxiety-riddled adolescent, and the story, about feeling unworthy of love, had a profound effect on him. “But I couldn’t see making a new version because I could never see past ‘the nose’.”
Now the nose has been ditched. Just before the pandemic, Wright saw the Cyrano musical written by Erica Schmidt, produced in the US, starring Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) as Cyrano and Haley Bennett as Roxanne, with music by members of rock band the National. Schmidt had radically revised the physical challenge Cyrano faces (Dinklage has dwarfism). The nose was always a bit of a conundrum – even more so today when bad ones can be readily fixed. No man by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature, though.
Wright, still best known for Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012), rather than his more recent work, has always specialised in frustrated romance. He sees this project, developed since the pandemic, as especially relevant now, nothing less than “a love letter to love”.
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He also maintains that Cyrano is “a musical for people who don’t like musicals”, since he’s not “that into them” himself. Put another way, this project is a bold attempt to duplicate some of the success of 2012’s Les Misérables, which his friend Tom Hooper so signally failed to do himself with his calamitous travesty Cats (2019).
As in Cats, the singing is live, in the pursuit of naturalism and spontaneity. Dinklage turns out to have a fine, gravelly voice, and the music is undemanding balladeering, decorated with occasional Philip Glass-type pulsing, rather than monstrous belters.
Mercifully, Wright does not emulate Tom Hooper’s penchant for zooming down the throats of his stars as if constantly leaping forward from the front row. Instead, filmed in the baroque splendour of Noto in Sicily, with lots of long takes and fluid tracking shots, Wright indulges his love of extravagant design and theatrical effects, choreographed to the utmost (there’s a ballet of bakers, a snowstorm of letters). The battle scenes of the fourth act, filmed in wintry conditions on Mount Etna, are equally stylised, severely monochrome, evoking the trenches of the First World War, while – for the tragic finale – all is luminous and white, a minimalist dream.
Dinklage is carefully filmed from low angles and he convincingly carries off Cyrano’s physical feats, beating the fop Valvert in a duel in the theatre. He’s just right for the part, despite being carelessly American rather than in any way Gascon. All the experience of his own life can be felt here in his bearing – that mix of self-possession and susceptibility, humour and aggression – in a way that would never be possible with an actor with a mere prosthetic schnozz. So that works.
So too does the hint that the whole business of Cyrano fooling Roxanne into believing she loves handsome but dumb Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr) for the wit of his letters is actually quite contemporary, being surprisingly similar to the deceptions practised in online dating: classic catfishing indeed.
What feels rather more disconcerting is the extent to which this Cyrano is a family affair. Peter Dinklage has been married to Erica Schmidt since 2005. Joe Wright has been in a relationship for several years with Haley Bennett. The couple have a daughter.
It’s a familiar scenario, the director and the star – but Bennett brings less to her role than Dinklage does to his. Miscast, perhaps? But what do we dunces who don’t like musicals know?
“Cyrano” is in cinemas from 25 February
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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War