Cyrano (2021) – Glossing Over a Classic

This review contains spoilers.

Against a candlelit backdrop that aims for John Alcott’s pastel frames in Barry Lyndon but without the lyrical spaces, Joe Wright plods with well-meaning confidence through this musical tribute to Edmond Rostand’s overnight theatrical sensation, Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). From the film’s glammed-up shadows, Peter Dinklage emerges like a stout poet-king. He's indestructible. The rosy Haley Bennett swoons into view as Roxanne, all bosoms and curls (“a peach smiling at a strawberry,” the play described). But his boomy mood and her fruitful figure can’t save the film’s witless recounting of once-great lines, which leave literature’s greatest loverboy lost in a Hallmarkie haze. Rostand restricted his abilities when writing characters other than Cyrano to ensure that his lead had the wittiest point-of-view in the play’s world. Wright’s impression of his intellect may look the part, but it lacks so much panache in any of its proposed adaptations of Rostand’s differently literate personalities that even Cyrano’s lines might as well have been written by Christian.

Christian is of course the human device that activates the story (here played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He loves Roxanne without the words to express it while Cyrano loves her without the confidence to admit it. The three of them circle each other as Cyrano composes Christian’s love letters to woo Roxanne by proxy. Wright’s adaptation adapts the love story only, omitting or miscalculating the play's valiant self-appraisal and intellectual energy.

The most obvious change is a false equivalency, where the film takes Peter Dinklage’s short stature as an equal replacement for his theatrical namesake’s floppy nose. But his height is a trait that the audience comprehends with sympathy, never misplacing the warrior king in Dinklage’s proud posture. This makes it sadder that Cyrano fails to observe his self-worth, whereas it was ironic, not pitiable, for the long-nosed version to let a long nose delimit him. This is because the nose affected nothing – its function was to be functionless. This adaptation tries to use self-doubt in the place of vanity, resulting in one of literature’s pointiest pride parables slipping into a sap story.

The viewer cannot mistake the new Cyrano's physical limitation as ironic, as the self-estimation compresses in defeated puppy dog wrinkles across Dinklage’s wanting face. This skews the comedic discomfort from the story, leaving a misplaced sentimentality that affects its entire emotional structure. Cyrano’s assertion that his misfortune results from his “pride” puffs off unconvincingly since “pride” is not the same as “self-acceptance," especially in a society driven to champion a physical ideal that he can never attain. The script only removed his nose (and “all that appertains to it,” he said once, “of pride, of aspiration, of feeling, poetry, of godlike spark”). Yet in doing so, it inverted his soul.

If the story relied on pride (the play says, “panache”), Cyrano would resist his opponents by turning their view of him against them. The greatest offense of all would be those who avoid his gaze to avoid offending him, accidentally suggesting that there is something to avoid. In response, he’d rattle off a dozen ways to call someone short, as he did once with the concept of a big nose (“No wind, O majestic nose, can give THEE cold! – save when the mistral blows!”). He’d cut to the funny bone of the situation, relishing the sheer conflict of it, with the terms that this version anesthetizes him from thinking.

Emma Schmidt, the writer of both the 2018 theater revival (also starring Dinklage and Bennett) and this film, refrains from milking the comedic potential of Cyrano’s stature, even as a form of metaphysical self-defense. With so few references to his height, the script betrays its respect for a sweet man by failing to make his pride more evident than his sadness. Like those illiterate nobles, the screenplay becomes the offense by averting its gaze from the truth of the character's situation, implying that it would have been worthy of offense to look. The literary Cyrano would be angered by this film. He would cut it down as his original version cut his challenger’s “witless face” for daring not to look at him.

The script’s coddling is most obvious when scenes change so drastically they feel omitted, such as the one where Cyrano once conjured a dozen improved insults at the over-eager Viscount, whose opening volley consisted of, “Sir, your nose is … hmm … it is … very big!” The film contains only a whisper of the encounter, as though smelling a meal in the next room is as good as eating it. The scene has Dinklage's personality to supply a roar of physical power, but it has no grandness in it. The Viscount loses not to a well-timed symphony of playful verses but by attempting to stab Cyrano in the back and being justly skewered; Cyrano's command of the situation seems purely physical, more the feat of a superhero swashbuckler than an agile mind. He calls Cyrano a “freak,” a title the hero willingly accepts without offering many wittier improvements. That would have been the moment he became Cyrano – the correction, not the acceptance. He parries but never ripostes.

This Cyrano even ignores new setups for his classic verbal rebellions. Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin) unknowingly baits him with, “You do not seem to have a high opinion of yourself.” Had Rostand’s Cyrano been 4'4", he might have spiritually recovered this faux-pax with various verses lampooning the noblemen wallowing in the bloated glow of their "high opinions." He might have turned his viewpoint to comedy, describing his visual experience as a “world of seats” or a “forest of pampered asses.” There are many ways to have made this version feel like Cyrano on new terms. Losing the nose was not as problematic as failing to translate its purpose in its poet-rebel’s worldview, which is to bask in conflict, absorb hatred, and moderate absurdity with defiance. In lacking it, this new Cyrano is even less than a puppy – he’s been neutered too.

The translation to a musical, no matter how noble its intentions, inflames rather than covers the film’s intellectual mistakes. A line from an illiterate soldier can contrast meaningfully with the writing of a poet’s flowery verses. When both become songs (“Take this letter/to ma gurl”), the sing-song phrasing does not reproduce the effect. Though Bennett wields the musical intent with promise in her sappy yet well-intentioned phrases, Dinklage’s chunky timber cannot communicate a master poet as well as the verses the songs hope to summarize. The cleanliness of the numbers, none of which have a single thump of genuine energy, gives this version the clumsily likable impression of a Muppet adaptation, albeit with just the humans. A song that mirrors the three characters in a triple exposure as they express their feelings is as assuredly literal (and as deep) as a greeting card.

The moments with real tug are those that copy the play directly, such as one translated near-verbatim when Roxanne smirks at Cyrano’s suggestion that he fought a hundred men. “Ten,” he admits. “Still,” she says as she leaves, “What courage!” Dinklage perfectly words the reply, his posture speaking more than a hundred songs as he says to no one, “I have done better since.” It’s the entire tragedy in a glance, five words taken directly from the play, and it contrasts so blatantly with the film’s stodgy revisions that it could be picked out from feeling alone.

Wright is well-known for his period adaptations of Austen (Pride and Prejudice) and the Austen-esque (Atonement). Yet he was in retrospect as wrong for Cyrano as Michael Bay would be wrong for James Bond. They appear to contain the same action, yet produce none of the right feeling. He and Schmidt interpreted it as a sentimental work, losing most of the comedy (therefore, most of the tragedy). Focusing solely on the romantic premise while draining the spectacle of any risks or emotional extremes, great words become Hallmark proclamations. They sterilized Cyrano’s prideful ire (even the scene where he puffs up in defense of his soul against a profiteering poetry editor is gone). All that’s left is the lack of self-belief of a beautiful yet troubled man as he hopes to impress a righteous yet demanding lady.

Even gifting Roxanne with more agency (she becomes a nurse for wounded veterans in this version) hits the wrong note despite theoretically being a worthy improvement. In the play, it was her sincerity that made Cyrano’s devotion to her so tragically ironic in comparison to his intellectual chaos. For Bennett’s version, an increase in agency backfires because Roxanne seems more demanding, more aware, and thus less likely to be deceived. Her increased intellect makes her more painfully compatible with Cyrano, creating a sadder but less ironic dynamic. It doesn't thwart their love, but it skews what it means. And she's not the only personality whose changes add conflict instead of clarity. Recast as a black man, Christian's dynamic with other characters clashes with the truths of the period. Being called "inarticulate" as his commanding officer writes his letters for him is one thing, but it's worse with Roxanne. Christian no longer seems like the painfully average man of the times but rather something "exciting" and different for an upper-class woman of the period to invite into her bed. It's uncomfortable to inspect this change from within the film's setting, yet the screenplay doesn't have a clue.

Cyrano is not the first modern adaptation to mistake personal affirmations for improvements to the meta. What they forget is that characters rely on their natures to complete their story, even flawed ones, even those that seem like they could be "improved" for the tastes of a new era with the right intentions. The film even changes Cyrano’s final injury from a useless (therefore, ironic) blow to the head to a war wound received nobly, helped along by his self-administered starvation. It once again confuses protecting a character’s virtues with improving their value to the story. It is automatic, even implicit, to pity this Cyrano. What could be a worse fate for him than that?

The lackeys in the play who smacked his head and caused him to die unrequited (nearly) gave him the better deal because they still couldn’t take his panache. The lackeys in the writer’s room of this version in having twice the sympathy arrived at twice the cruelty. They left him with nothing.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists Releasing/Universal Pictures

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