The opening number in Joe Wright’s movie musical Cyrano comes on soft and slow. “Something to Say” is a wistful, yearning ode to love, anchored by Roxanne (Haley Bennett), the love interest of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. The low-key sequence, where Roxanne sings from her carriage window, “I need someone to die for / Write poems and cry for,” doesn’t hint at the wonderful loudness of the rest of the musical. But Wright’s vision, even in these opening minutes, immediately puts this adaptation in conversation with the cinematic continuum of other Cyrano adaptations, while setting the film apart from every recently released movie musical.
Wright’s take, based on Erica Schmidt’s musical adaptation of Rostand’s play, finds inspiration in the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac starring José Ferrer and the 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gérard Depardieu. But he reinvents both by infusing an aching angst reminiscent of Shakespeare in Love. Unlike previous iterations of the character, this Cyrano doesn’t feel romantically hindered by an outsized nose — his conviction that he isn’t suitable for romance comes from his height. His unparalleled talent with words, along with his unquestionable bravery, raises him above his station, but never so much that Roxanne returns his affections.
This Roxanne craves true love, and rejects marrying the grotesque Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, deliciously villainous) for his money. The dashing visage of a new army recruit, Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), has enraptured her. Her desperately devoted childhood best friend, Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), languishes unrequited in the background, feeding heartfelt verses to Christian so he can woo Roxanne. The combustible throuple instigates the movie’s dramatic action. The moody ballads by The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner give the lush, melancholic love story an elegant verve.
Wright’s Cyrano, repeatedly delayed from its original 2021 release date and now nearly abandoned by release company United Artists, is visually attuned and balletically sumptuous — a musical geared toward teenagers, the kind of project that’s been missing from multiplexes for a long time now. Wright’s epic romance is a reminder of how much musicals are geared for grand designs and even grander emotions.
The director takes great pleasure in the poetic movements of the human body: The bakery scene, set to the urgent notes of “Your Name,” is a sensuous arrangement of flesh and food. Black and white arms cover each other around dough. Pastry chefs lyrically pirouette to Cyrano’s ardent verses. Unlike in other recent movie musicals like In the Heights, Tick, Tick… Boom!, and Dear Evan Hansen), Cyrano’s richly framed compositions (by longtime Wright DP Seamus McGarvey) never uncut the intended majesty of the song and dance sequences.
The scale of this Cyrano — reminiscent of that Depardieu version — recalls Wright’s detailed work on his 2012 film Anna Karenina. McGarvey leans on a deep depth of field and gliding tracking shots to take in the vast crowd of extras in finely textured costumes, and the warm palette of the lavish production design. Wright and editor Valerio Bonelli (Darkest Hour and Florence Foster Jenkins) are smart enough not to manufacture raw emotion by overcutting: They reach for fades to create diptychs and triptychs. (A sterling example comes during the spellbinding “Every Letter,” where Cyrano, Christian, and Roxanne harmonize together.)
Bennett gives this Roxanne a surprising depth in spite of her shallow concerns, playing her far closer to an unfulfilled intellectual than a daydreaming debutante. Her full-throated rendition of “I Need More,” a song about not settling, adds further contours. Some songwriters gain greater resonance, a bigger spark of magic, from vocalists like Bennett, whose performance is hypnotic.
The blooming romance between Christian and Roxanne is also transcendent. After Harrison’s turns as troubled teens in the coming-of-age dramas Luce and Waves, his innocent, charming role here is a welcome revelation. He mixes effortlessly with Bennett for a combustible chemistry of idyllic young love that in Mitski’s words, become an irresistible “heat lightning.” They’re so easy to root for, to the point of making cinema fans pine for the days where a success like this would mean half a dozen more romantic-film pairings for Harrison and Bennett.
Cyrano promises Roxanne: “As ever, I am at your service.” In her service, the fragile balance between him giving words to Christian’s passions and protecting Roxanne’s feelings crumbles, leading to irreconcilable damages for the throuple as De Guiche comes prowling. Mendelsohn, the best villain of his generation, shines in the darker, bleaker corners of the film. There’s never been a more ruthless, more vicious De Guiche than his. Every note of his seething rendition of “What I Deserve” digs in like rusty talons through tender skin.
Dinklage’s assured performance advances with equal precision. His interpretation of Cyrano veers closely to Ferrer’s: He plays the prideful poet as a swashbuckling wit. Unlike his predecessors, however, Dinklage allows a measurable vulnerability to seep into the boastful hero.
If there’s one shortcoming in Wright’s film, it’s the songs. This musical is one tune short of being an irresistible collection of earworms. Often, Dinklage bears the brunt of the weaker material: His low-octave voice closely matches The National’s indelible sound, but the plain monotony will grate for many non-fans. Harrison and Bennett’s approachable vocals, on the other hand, offer much-wanted respite, as does the ensemble performance of “Wherever I Fall,” a mournful sublimation of quiet last wishes into heartbreaking openness.
Dinklage overcomes those hurdles for what may be the best performance of his career. He grasps the wide range between morose admirer, hurt confidant, and rugged war hero, for a creation far less theatrical than his predecessors in the role. His groundedness fixes the melodramatic narrative to a realness that holds the character’s naked agony to the surface without succumbing to treacly emotions.
It’s tempting to declare this film a cult classic in the making. But critics shouldn’t make such proclamations — audiences should. But Wright’s Cyrano, dropping on the edge of Oscar season, should deservedly find the kind of passionate fans who flocked to see the Best Picture-winning Shakespeare in Love. Because not only do Wright and Dinklage fashion an unrequited anguish worth crying over, again and again. Cyrano is the best movie musical of the last decade.
Cyrano debuts in theaters on Feb. 25.