When the best thing you can say about a period romance – no a musical – is that the costumes were nice then something has gone horribly wrong.
Directed by Joe Wright of Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and Darkest Hour fame, Cyrano is a close adaptation of a loose adaptation of an even looser adaptation. It takes as its source material Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac which is itself a fictionalised retelling of the life of seventeenth-century swordsman and poet Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655). Rostand’s piece was adapted into a 2018 off-Broadway stage musical by Erica Schmidt starring Peter Dinklage, with music and lyrics by the National. Schmidt wrote the screenplay for Cyrano, which sticks fairly closely to her own musical adaptation, with Dinklage and co-star Haley Bennett reprising their roles as Cyrano and Roxanne.
Opening in Paris, 1640, we meet impoverished and orphaned aristocrat Roxanne as she prepares for a theatre date with the slimy but rich Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s a period drama trope that’s been done to death – the idealistic young woman being cajoled into a marriage for money – but this is the least of Cyrano’s problems. While taking their seats before the performance, Roxanne exchanges suggestive glances with Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome new recruit to a local regiment. The return of the beloved actor Montfleury is gate-crashed by Cyrano, a rival wordsmith and childhood friend of Roxanne, who accuses Montfleury (in rhyming couplets no less) of being an artless buffoon and chases him away.
This series of events sets the stage for a love triangle: Cyrano is hopelessly infatuated with Roxanne but lacks the confidence to tell her, believing that his disability would dissuade her from loving him back. Despite having only just learned of her existence, Christian is also infatuated with Roxanne but lacks the eloquence to successfully court an aristocratic woman. So begins the central conceit of the story. Both guards in the same regiment, Cyrano takes newcomer Christian under his wing and proposes to help him woo Roxanne, writing her letters in Christian’s name: ‘my words upon your lips, I will make you romantic while you make me handsome’.
This might seem like a set-up for a romantic comedy of mistaken identities, a period romp that makes a few serious points about disability and homosocial masculinity. Regrettably, Cyrano achieves none of these things. For starters, its hero’s disability only receives superficial attention. At the theatre, Cyrano is called a freak by a man whom he promptly duels and kills. Later, he makes a few self-deprecating jokes about his height and says that a ‘tall woman’ like Roxanne could never love a ‘midget’ (his word). And that’s more or less it for ableism in Cyrano’s universe. Famously, Cyrano is not disabled in Rostand’s source material but has an extraordinarily large nose, which is seen as a physical manifestation of his internal insecurities. It says a lot about Cyrano’s superficial engagement with disability that Dinklage’s Cyrano could easily be replaced with a nondisabled man with a massive nose and very few alterations to the plot or dialogue would be required.
This was a conscious creative choice by Schmidt. But physical disability and massive noses are two very different things, and the film’s decision to downplay this exciting creative choice makes it come off as reluctant to engage in the topic of disability, a particularly odd stance given its star’s recent criticism of stereotypical portrayals of dwarfs in film. I would have liked Cyrano to further explore the implications of casting a dwarf as a swashbuckling romantic lead, especially in a historical context where dwarfs were commonly seen on stage and in poetry as fit for little more than cruel objectification and slapstick comedy (a tendency that still persists today, as Dinklage notes).
Even more baffling is Cyrano’s treatment of race. Christian is a Black man. The filmmakers don’t seem to deem this noteworthy, but Christian’s race is made uncomfortably apparent to the audience in the scenes of a well-spoken white man (Cyrano) schooling a comically inarticulate Black man (Christian) on how to speak properly. Reviewing Season One of Netflix’s Bridgerton for Vox, Aja Romano criticises the phenomenon of ‘colourblind’ casting in recent historical dramas, writing that ‘the inclusion of racially conscious casting becomes a convenient mechanism by which racism as a theme can be duly eliminated’. In Cyrano, Christian is literally eliminated as he sacrifices himself for his white superior officer and the ‘real’ romantic hero of the piece. The film wants to have a disabled man and a Black man as its leads but seemingly doesn’t want its audience to think too hard about ableism and racism. In fact, it skirts around the topic of ableism while refusing to address racism at all. The audience can only conclude that ableism exists in Cyrano’s universe (but is only deemed worthy of fleeting commentary) while racism… does not.
Wrapping up the discussion of odd creative choices, Cyrano’s many allusions to his presence throughout Roxanne’s childhood and his longstanding infatuation with her have some predatory implications, to put it lightly, given that he is played as (at least) 20 years older than her. The already substantial age gap between Bennett and Dinklage is exaggerated by the incongruous coupling of Roxanne’s youthful idealism with Cyrano’s world-weary moping.
It might seem that I’ve forgotten this film is a musical. In my defence, it appears at various points that the filmmakers also forgot they were making one. Although Cyrano began life as an off-Broadway musical, music and lyrics appear to have been added as an afterthought. Ensemble numbers are scarce and few songs progress the plot. To compound the problem, Dinklage is not the best of singers, a fact accentuated by his many repetitive and introspective ballads. Bennett, however, all but carries the musical numbers and every song of hers is a highlight, making it even more of a shame that Roxanne is written so one-dimensionally and with so little agency. And the less said about Cyrano’s rapping the better.
The lyrics are particularly clunky for a musical whose plot revolves around the writing and reading of emotive lyric verse as an integral part of seduction. In a scene towards the end that is absent from Rostand’s source material, a group of guards huddle in a tent preparing for an assault from which they will likely not return. They take turns narrating letters in verse to their loved ones. One guard pipes up: ‘I have a girl, I think I love her / Should have told her, instead I told her mother’. As with almost everything in Cyrano, this line is sung with the utmost earnestness.
The topic of unintentionally funny lyrics leads me to the most thoroughgoing problem with Cyrano. Its tone tends towards earnest melodrama that is at odds with its many moments of immersion-breaking absurdity. This tendency is never clearer than in a climactic balcony scene during which Roxanne fails to realise that Christian is miming to her old friend Cyrano’s singing of a self-penned love song. As if this wasn’t already implausible enough, Dinklage and Harrison’s singing voices sound nothing alike (ironically Harrison is a far stronger singer). The whole scene is played entirely seriously, with Roxanne falling more and more in love with Christian with each slushy line warbled by Cyrano and mimed by Christian. I wonder whether this inherently ridiculous scenario could have been more effective if played as comedy. Played seriously, however, it ends up making Roxanne seem catastrophically unperceptive, a trait that continues to mar her characterisation throughout the film.
Elsewhere, Dinklage and Harris show themselves to be skilled comic actors when given the chance to lighten the tone, and the earlier pairing of Dinklage and Bashir Salahuddin as Le Bret, Cyrano’s confidant, is thoroughly enjoyable in more light-hearted scenes. Such moments give us a glimpse at a very different Cyrano, a buddy comedy that does away with the source material’s overbearingly earnest tone and embraces the inherent silliness of its premise, all while preserving some of Rostand’s more valuable points about physical difference and masculine insecurity. A tonal shift towards comedy might also have helped make Mendelsohn’s scenery-chewing performance as the pantomime villain De Guiche seem less out-of-place.
This leaves me wondering: who is Cyrano for? Not musical-lovers, that’s for sure. Wright introduced the film at its London premiere as ‘the anti-musical musical for people who don’t like musicals’, adding that he’s not ‘that into them’ himself. (Why make one?) Nor is it funny enough for rom-com fans, and its moments of unintentional absurdity break the dramatic tension and immersion needed for enjoyable historical drama. But the costumes were really nice. So were the sets. Designers Massimo Cantini Parrin, Jacqueline Durran, and Sarah Greenwood deserve the world.