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The first time we meet Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) in the delightful new musical of the same name, he’s at the theater. There’s an awful play going on, and Cyrano arrogantly mocks and demeans an actor from his spot in the crowd until he drives him from the stage. After humiliating the poor thespian, Cyrano is challenged to a duel by an onlooker who underestimates the warrior poet. Cyrano is unmoored; he quickly dispatches him with sword, wit, and wordplay. He raps about his accomplishments as he plunges his sword into the fool’s belly.
Theater, arrogant wordsmiths, duels, and rapping: Does this sound familiar? In a sense, every entry in the movie musical boom of the last year, including In the Heights, Tick, Tick…Boom!, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story, owes its existence to Hamilton, the Broadway phenomenon that persuaded studio executives there was a big audience for onscreen musicals again. But with Cyrano, you can actually feel the financiers’ eyes widen at the comparisons, from color-blind casting to a ballad set to the writing of love letters.
And yet nothing about this Cyrano feels derivative. Based on a 2019 Off-Broadway play, it starts with the bold reinterpretation of its hero’s defining physicality. Played by Dinklage, Cyrano has overcome not an extended proboscis but the limits of living with dwarfism in a society that stigmatizes it to create a meaningful life fighting valiantly in the French army, drinking with his friend Le Bret (Bashir Salahuddin), and pining for the love of Roxanne (Haley Bennett), his childhood chum. Dinklage, an impeccable screen actor, feels like the only choice for the role. He has a face for cinema, and especially for this movie; with soulful eyes set amidst deep wrinkles, it contorts into forced smiles and painful grimaces to keep his innermost thoughts from blooming across it.
His performance is such a marked contrast from that of Kelvin Harrison Jr.—playing Christian, Roxanne’s tongue-tried crush to whom Cyrano lends his words—that it almost feels as if they are two halves of the same man. That Cyrano has invented Christian, a la Tyler Durden in Fight Club, as a way of overcoming his shyness around women. Harrison is hunky and a little bit blank, while Bennett’s Roxanne is a picture of unencumbered passion. Like a subject of a Renaissance painting, she and Harrison appear as a window into a kinder world into which Dinklage’s Cyrano seemingly has no entry.
Director Joe Wright matches these thoughtful performances with the same bold sensibility he pioneered in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. There is no starch in this costume drama. Wright fashions painterly compositions from his subjects, but he does so with a grandeur that brings it closer to big-budget spectacle. An early fight scene in which Cyrano battles ten assailants is choreographed with free-wheeling glee, including a delightful moment when our hero, relieved of his sword, fights with torches that light up both the screen and his enemies. For a moment, Cyrano becomes Robin Hood. Rarely does a classical film allow itself to be this much fun.
Obsessives of the movie musical might not be here for fight scenes, however, and they may find that Cyrano falters in the one place a musical cannot: its songs. Written by indie rock band The National, there are wild swings in quality from tune to tune. For every standout number—“Overcome,” a duet written for the balcony scene, swells with emotion, while the soldiers’ lament “Wherever I Fall” will rip your heart out—there is another that fails to connect. And none of the lead actors have a voice that can compensate for a lackluster song, leading to the recurring feeling of waiting impatiently for the singing to fade out and the action to begin again. The odd flat scene can be forgiven, however, in a film that scales such awesome peaks. The unrequited romance is a song we know by heart, but Cyrano finds new notes to sing.
Cyrano opens in D.C. area theaters on Feb. 25.