Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Dinklage gives 'Cyrano' wit, heart, and bite

   Some characters never vanish. Consider Cyrano de Bergerac. The witty, eloquent outsider has been pining for Roxanne  since Edmond Rostand's play debuted in 1897. 
   Feelings of inadequacy keep Cyrano from confessing his love for Roxanne. Instead, he tries to win her for Christian, a handsome soldier who lacks the necessary poetic skills for inspired wooing. Cyrano writes beautiful letters for Christian.
    A variety of versions of Rostand’s play have made it to the screen. Steve Martin appeared in Roxanne (1987) and Gerard Depardieu proved memorable in Cyrano de Bergerac, a 1990 French version. A 1950 entry starring Jose Ferrer and Mala Powers -- the first one I saw -- occasionally turns up on TV.
     Typically,  Cyrano believes that his large nose excludes him from harvesting the fruits of love.  He lives in a world in which appearances matter.
    In director Joe Wright’s addition to the de Bergerac canon, Peter Dinklage makes a smart, cocky Cyrano who believes that his diminutive stature (not his nose) overrules his consummate wit and intelligence -- not to mention his skill with a sword.
      Cyrano, therefore, demurs when it comes to courting the beautiful, brilliant Roxanne (Haley Bennett) -- albeit not without a measure of resentment.    
       The first requirement of  any production of Cyrano: The actor who plays Cyrano must be good. 
     Dinklage proves a worthy Cyrano. An opening scene in which Cyrano banishes a bad actor from the stage brims with gusto and imagination, giving Dinklage the entrance the character deserves.
     Not surprisingly, Wright hasn't neglected the movie's looks. Period trappings are gorgeously rendered and cinematographer  Seamus McGarvey floods the screen with color. 
       All good, but Cyrano is also a musical based on a stage production written by Erica Schmidt, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie.
       Yes, a musical. I didn't mention it earlier because I've hardly thought about the music since I saw the movie.
       The tunes by Bryce and Aaron Dessner (lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser) can feel almost prosaic, unlike what we might expect to hear in 17th Century France. Perhaps this is because the lyrics are tailored for actors who aren't all singers. Maybe the music had more impact when performed live on stage.
     Whatever the case, the actors sketch their characters with ease and flair. It's the performances not the music that stick.
     Bennett creates a vibrant Roxanne,  a woman of beauty and wit. Ben Mendelsohn earns his villainous stripes as the conniving Duke De Guiche. Kelvin Harrison Jr. winningly portrays a clueless, handsome, and, ultimately, noble Christian.
    Bashir Salahuddin plays Cyrano's friend and confidant, a comrade who appreciates Cyrano's gifts.
     Like its main character, the story endures. It's not for nothing that it has been re-told so many times. Even with its farcical moments and darker turns, Cyrano always retains some charm. 
     So, if you’re looking for a single reason to see Cyrano, try this: Dinklage's portrayal -- angry, rueful, and sad -- is bound to earn him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. 
     The music may not burn its way into memory, but Dinklage gives Cyrano a taste of bitterness that stings.

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