Cyrano has a very sweet heart. It’s an epic romance constructed as a musical. It is ostensibly a live-action, adult-oriented Disney renaissance musical, and yet, at the same time, the cinematography and visual direction are as lavish as you’d want them to be, the costuming very beautiful, the film never feels as powerful as it thinks it is. The script is often emotionally overcooked. The songs are never powerful enough to cut through the overbearing passions, tearing you out of the immersion of a movie musical, all too overwrought to consistently deliver its sentimentality satisfyingly.
Based upon the off-Broadway musical written and directed Erica Schmidt (which also starred Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett), which itself is based upon Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac, Cyrano follows the romantic longing of the titular Cyrano (Dinklage), a talented poet and soldier in the town guard, who is secretly, deeply in love with his oldest friend, Roxanne (Bennett), who herself, while has wealthy suitors such as the De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), falls in love with a new cadet in Cyrano’s regiment, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Due to Cyrano’s appearance and social status, he doubts Roxanne could ever love him and therefore agrees to write letters of love for Roxanne, under the guise of being written by Christian, who is not so talented with words, sending the trio into a whirlwind romance of secrets, lies and lyrical letters.
The film is endearing, it wears its heart on its sleeve to a fault, and with Joe Wright at the helm, his tenderness is right back at the forefront after a decade away from period romances. Wright’s sense of romantic longing and intimacy is ideally suited to this film; it’s easy to see what he would be attracted to with this adaptation. And while with the musical element, Wright revels in the big numbers, showing off the choreography at every chance he gets. While sometimes the direction here could be more dynamic, it’s nice to watch a filmmaker earnestly enjoy playing in the musical genre. At the same time, though, Wright is never quite able to capture the magic of its emotional highs, not always being able to find the same kind of intimate passion that he has in the past. It’s still a very good-looking film, and his sense of romance really lends itself to this story, yet Wright never quite fully grasps the same kind of starry-eyed enchantment that he so deftly captured in his earlier romantic works.
The issue, however, is also partially in Schmidt’s script. The emotional highs of the story feeling overcooked in ways that would likely work on stage far better than it does on screen, the melodrama of the writing lending itself to an experience that is predicated playing for the stalls, rather than on a screen where the emotions are far more readable through cinematic language. The script isn’t bad but lacks nuance where it needs a delicate touch. It is a very beautiful story, and the writing is very earnest and loving; Schmidt has a great handle on this story and these characters. Still, it is at times too emotionally overbearing for its own good.
The score, written by the Dessner twins of The National, can be rather powerful at the best of times; the action music for the duels at the beginning are heavy on the staccato-ing strings and the rhythmic strikes of drums, the legato of the piano playing overlayed with guitar for the more romantic moments. The music is beautifully composed and really well utilised. However, the songs themselves often leave much to be desired. There are a handful of really impactful pieces, “Madly” (most of Dinklage’s solos in fact) and “Wherever I Fall” being the highlights. Still, many musical numbers lack the poignant power they need to make this sweeping romance work. The lyrics, written by The National’s Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser, don’t have the same punch that much of the poetry scattered throughout the film has, leaving the musical numbers lacking.
The film is built like a classical musical; it’s virtually Disney-esque in its structure, right down to a villain song, where Mendelsohn gets to take the spotlight away from Dinklage, Bennett and Harrison (which is a very fun moment). There’s a saying in musical theatre that explains, “when the emotion becomes too strong for speech you sing; when it becomes too strong for song, you dance”, and the film follows that the songs coming at these emotional high points for the characters. However, in addition to the songs not having the emotional power behind them, Wright and Schmidt feel like they’re a little too slow on the uptake. They linger a little too long in the preamble to lead into the song, that by the time the song comes, the emotional strength has wavered. The song doesn’t have that same strength as it would have coming thirty seconds earlier. It may seem minute, but that pacing is so crucial.
The film’s emotional presence might be a little too much, it might play too much as a stage musical rather than a film, it might linger too long at the best of times, and yet, it’s also an earnestly beautiful sweeping period romance, it’s hard not to get caught up in Schmidt’s interpretation of the Cyrano story. Wright might not be hitting the beats he has before, but he is still one of our most romantic filmmakers, he understands intimacy and passion like few do. Meanwhile, the performances are all as genuine and heartfelt as the film itself is, Dinklage, being the standout, delivering a gorgeously empathetic and lovelorn performance. It’s a flawed but earnestly sweet film, it’s a tale that has been told in many forms, and this version has a heart of gold.