tue 09/08/2022

Cyrano review - a heady cinematic Valentine | reviews, news & interviews

Cyrano review - a heady cinematic Valentine

Cyrano review - a heady cinematic Valentine

Joe Wright’s impassioned retelling and Peter Dinklage’s ground-breaking star turn distinguish a classic heartbreaker

Star-crossed: Roxanne (Haley Bennett) and Cyrano (Peter Dinklage)Pictures courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Edmond Rostand’s familiar story of ventriloquised love becomes a sensual, sacrificial tragedy, in Joe Wright’s heady cinematic Valentine, adapted by screenwriter Erica Schmidt from her own stage musical, with music by members of The National.

The setting is somewhere between the 17th and 18th century, earthy history and fairy tale. We begin in the boudoir of Roxanne (Haley Bennett), as her maid explains the female facts of life: “Children need love, adults need money.” Cash comes from the sinister Duc de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who sweeps her off to the theatre; en route, Wright builds a mistily soft-focus, vividly theatrical, whirling world. Low-angled, sometimes anamorphic cameras peer up at horses’ hooves, Pierrots and puppeteers, reflecting the view of Peter Dinklage’s as yet unseen dwarf Cyrano. Heavily-powdered gentry have ghost-white faces with plague-red spots, sickly next to Bennett’s healthy flush. When soldier-poet Cyrano forcibly takes the stage, and an aristocrat heckles him as a “freak”, this grotesque society makes the insult ironic. Still, what a friend calls his “unique physique” can’t compete with Roxanne’s electric connection to another soldier, gorgeous Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr., bottom right with Dinklage).

Peter Dinklage in CyranoWright’s taste for period and literary work, whose big hits have mined Austen (Pride & Prejudice) and Churchill (Darkest Hour), makes him a very mainstream British director, but his reaching here for a richer, deeply felt lushness shows how good that can be. Dinklage’s pained Cyrano, meanwhile, makes a protective shield of his richly baritone wordplay and chivalrous swordplay. Playing a noble-featured, wholly convincing romantic lead, Dinklage makes his physical departure from expectations both unimportant, and transformative. Cyrano will practically change hearts and minds, as well as his already substantial career.

When Roxanne, a friend since childhood in some long gone small town, confesses her love of Christian to Cyrano, their exchange has a quick, comfortable rhythm; his stricken face when he realises she doesn’t mean him, and Roxanne’s unspoken realisation of this, gives everything that follows intimate, ambiguous sadness. Whether Cyrano would gain anything by speaking up stays unknown. Instead, he agrees to write love-letters for tongue-tied, besotted Christian: “I will make you eloquent, while you make me handsome.”

This is a truly three-way love story, with Harrison Jr.’s gently likeable Christian more than a handsome lunk. “Love him if not handsome? I cannot imagine it,” Roxanne says of one conundrum at the story’s heart. Her peremptory exploitation of her beauty’s worshippers – her only resource – to send the Duke to war and Cyrano to defend her with his life, like Cyrano’s vain, tortured pride, are only human. Mendelsohn, a specialist in icy, slippery villains, even gives the Duc his say, in the bitterly self-pitying, one could today say Putin-like song “What I Deserve”.

Peter Dinklage and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in CyranoThe famous balcony scene vaults a till now swashbuckling, often screwball film into a new level of innovative intensity, as the hidden Cyrano blurts, “I do not look – speak – as I feel.” His ventriloquism becomes soliloquy when, still hidden, he creeps agonisingly closer to Roxanne and revelation, Christian is struck truly dumb by Cyrano’s feelings, and Roxanne desirously responds, in a heart-breaking power ballad of Shakespearean cross-purposes.

Wright keeps to a distinct five-act structure, and the penultimate passage darkens and chills, as the Duc sends Cyrano and Christian’s regiment on a suicide mission. Filmed in the ash and show of Mount Etna in winter, it suggests a distant, wearying Russian conflict. “Wherever I Fall”, sung by three anonymous soldiers to women they’ll never see again, is Band-like Americana, the heartbreaker as protest song this time, poignantly insisting on love before battle’s bitter waste. The tragedy and love only deepen afterwards. Like Spielberg’s West Side Story, another heartfelt, still more masterfully mounted musical of Shakespearean depth, Wright stays true to his source, and the love his film aches to declare.

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