Cyrano is a mess, a shambles, a misfire, and also one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
The glut of awards bait that gets released by studios as the end of each film year draws near can be a deadening experience for the average film critic, as countless genteel prestige projects all begin to blur into one carefully appointed blob of respectability and seamless craftsmanship. On paper, director Joe Wright’s Cyrano would seem to fit snugly into that mold: an adaptation of Erica Schmidt’s acclaimed 2018 stage play of the Edmond Rostand classic Cyrano de Bergerac, with the great Peter Dinklage in a rare leading role, the accolades practically write themselves. Yet Cyrano is an utterly bonkers experience, a romance that traffics in graphic violence when its characters aren’t singing and dancing to songs courtesy of The National. That the film is a musical will even be a surprise to many given that marketing materials have been keen to avoid — or have just taken for granted — this detail, which is certainly a bit perplexing. Still, it’s not hyperbole to say that Cyrano is the most audacious big-budget studio film of the year, a movie that should not even exist in its current form, let alone achieve any success in its execution, especially with a replacement-level filmmaker like Wright at the helm. That’s not to say that Wright is an abjectly terrible director; rather, his particular “style” is just notably uninspired, never reaching the heights required of the risky projects he consistently tackles. His most successful endeavors work not because of him, but in spite of him, and left to his own devices, we get soulless bunk like Darkest Hour and The Woman in the Window. Cyrano isn’t exactly an exception to this rule, but everything is pitched at such a bugnuts tenor that Wright’s shortcomings actually contribute to the film’s appealing and pervasive madness.
Plot-wise, Cyrano sticks to the basics, at least in the broad strokes: in 17th-century France, a young, beautiful woman named Roxanne (Haley Bennett) falls in love — at first sight, mind you — with handsome army cadet Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) But Roxanne is unaware that her oldest and dearest friend, Cyrano de Bergerac (Dinklage), is also in love with her. A brash and strong-willed soldier who is also a gifted poet, Cyrano agrees to help Christian win Roxanne’s heart by covertly writing a series of love letters under his name, resigned to the idea that he will never be able to win her heart due to his non-classical appearance. Indeed, the most immediately obvious decision made in Cyrano is the choice of replacing Cyrano’s original physical deformity — a grotesquely large nose — with the casting of Dinklage, a little person. It’s a move that, if handled improperly, could have scanned as offensive, but Dinklage is such an appealing presence, elevating the proceedings with equal parts levity, longing, and gravitas, that the essential emotional core remains intact. Of course, this all exists within the swirling flamboyance of the rest of the film, and the production design, courtesy of Sarah Greenwood, seeks to amplify that artifice at every turn, a choice that might have seemed bolder had Wright not done nearly this exact same thing nine years ago with his adaptation of Anna Karenina. Whereas that film brought the literal stage to every filming location, Cyrano is content to merely resemble a theatrical production in passing, a detail that sounds clever in theory but can prove distracting in execution.
The music, meanwhile, is somber and literate, the exact opposite of the pop confections heard in the likes of something like The Greatest Showman and a fascinating counterbalance to Wright’s floridness. Still, as good as some of the songs are, it’s also not unfair to dub most of them unmemorable for the fact that they all sound vaguely similar, more like a National record than a sonically varied Broadway spectacle; it’s also the result of a cast that, while committed, aren’t technically all that skilled as vocalists, Bennett excepted. It should be noted, however, that at one point the film stops for five minutes so that Glen Hansard can pop up as one of a trio of singing soldiers who anticipate that they are about to die in battle and so lament for their families back home. The sequence also takes place in a cave, for what that’s worth. The point being, Wright has absolutely no clue how to shoot these musical numbers, favoring minimal camera movement and sedate editing that obliterates any sense of kineticism, even as bakers make bread in time with the music and soldiers duel. And that’s before even mentioning Ben Mendelsohn, who plays a scheming duke in the key of fey and who at one point sings a song about how he deserves to rape Roxanne. These sort of scene-to-scene thunderbolts are what Cyrano is constructed of, each part like a piece from a different puzzle that Wright insists on jamming together all the same. But this is also the film’s greatest strength. This artistic dissonance, executed with limitless confidence, is what makes the viewing experience so oddly enthralling. Given his track record, none of this should really surprise — this is still the man who once made an entire armada of pirates sing and dance to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It goes, then, that Cyrano is a mess, a shambles, and also a truly singular experience. Viewers sick to death of the inertia of “prestige” cinema should prepare to have this one on repeat.