Review: With Laborious Music and Stodgy, Static Filmmaking, Cyrano Is Another Joe Wright Disappointment

I’ve been here before. Where exactly? Oh, just the land of disappointment. Have you met our mayor, Joe Wright?

On the heels of triumphant accomplishments like Atonement, Pride & Prejudice and more, there is no filmmaker I root harder for with each new project. And yet, after missteps like Pan and The Woman in the Window, there seems to be no filmmaker quite as capable of letting me down entirely. It brings me no pleasure at all to say Wright has yet again come up short with Cyrano, an overstuffed, under-directed mess of a musical that even the uber-talented Peter Dinklage, who is easily the best thing about the movie, can’t save no matter how hard he tries (and oh, he tries).

So much of Cyrano should work. It’s a classic story, Edmund Rostand’s fable of an ugly poet in love with a beautiful woman who finds himself helping a handsome soldier woo her. Adapted by Erica Schmidt, this is a filmed version of the stage play she wrote and directed, one that also starred Peter Dinklage when it premiered off-Broadway in 2019 (one wonders if Schmidt might’ve had better success at filming her own work, as Wright fumbles the proceedings from the first). Set in 17th century France, the film is gorgeous to look at, from its lush costumes to dreamy vistas. Alongside Dinklage is a respectable cast, including Haley Bennett (Swallow) as the sweet and beautiful Roxanne; Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (The Trial of the Chicago 7) as the dashing Christian; and, in a laughable role far beneath his talents, Ben Mendelsohn as Duke de Guiche, a nobleman with his leering sights set on Roxanne. The music, mostly forgettable and forced, is by members of The National (music by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner; lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser). Wright returns to working with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who’s been DP for the filmmaker on many of his films (including both Atonement and Pan).

Unfortunately, all those parts add up to a sum that leaves us wanting, though it takes a moment to realize it. Cyrano opens with a flurry of activity, as we’re swept into a bustling theater where Roxanne is settling into a prominent box for an evening’s entertainment and the headlining actor begins delivering his mediocre scene (that’s not my judgement, that’s the point of the scene!). Soon, the crowd parts to reveal Dinklage among them, full of bluster and confidence as he lays into the actor for shortchanging this admiring audience of the performance they deserve. Dinklage owns the moment (as he does every scene he’s in), and it’s clear right away that he and Roxanne share a special bond. When Roxanne spots Christian in the audience, it’s also clear that she’s instantly smitten with him. Later, as Dinklage is telling a fellow soldier about his love for Roxanne, I found myself actively engaged in the moment, rooting for Cyrano and totally won over by the performance.

Before long, that hopeful sense of promise disappears with a heavy sigh, as the film’s various elements can’t keep up with what Dinklage is doing. Wright, the man who brought us one of the most remarkable tracking scenes in cinema’s history, can’t seem to figure out what he wants the camera to do during most of the film, particularly the musical numbers (and there are many of them). Roxanne’s sultry number “I Need More,” a missive pining for a passionate, physical connection with the man behind the letters, plays like a mid-’90s music video with just about as much emotional weight. When Cyrano and Christian are called off to war, one of the film’s most poignant moments, the moving “Wherever I Fall” about love and loss on the battlefield (and featuring a delightful cameo I won’t spoil here), is ultimately spoiled by its own laborious lyrics and slow camera work that feels like it will never get around to the big reveal of the scene.

Most frustrating are the film’s final moments, as Cyrano and Roxanne are resigned to their respective fates and the two have perhaps the first truly honest conversation of their long friendship. It should be an emotionally rich exchange, tinged with the tragedy of their long-suffering inability to ever be on the same page (pun intended). Instead, Wright’s stodgy, static framing keeps us at a remove, making it all but impossible to salvage any of the goodwill for these characters that might remain by this point. It’s a curious choice from a filmmaker who clearly knows how to do better, who’s managed time and time again through his direction to send powerful emotions from the screen to his audiences.

I’ve said more than once that movie musicals are not easy to do well, and I stand by that, particularly in a year where we’ve seen both wildly successful examples and many less so. Cyrano, I’m sorry to say, falls towards the lesser end of that spectrum, even with Dinklage’s winning performance (and some enviable costume design) at its center.

Cyrano is now playing in theaters.

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Lisa Trifone

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