Peter Dinklage plays a dashing 'Cyrano' in musical adaptation
I was working at a movie theater when “The Station Agent” became a sleeper hit back in 2003. The Sundance prize-winner provided the first starring role for Peter Dinklage, turning the actor into an overnight sensation more than a decade into his film career. As anyone who has sold tickets for any period of time will tell you, audiences aren’t always great about remembering the titles of the movies they came to see. I recall one woman walking up to me and saying, “I forget what it’s called, but we want to see the one about the handsome dwarf.”
Four Emmys later thanks to “Game of Thrones,” the handsome dwarf has his most dashing and swooningly romantic movie role yet, starring as Edmond Rostand’s illustrious soldier-poet and pseudonymous author of love letters in “Cyrano.” Director Joe Wright’s melancholy musical is something like the umpteenth movie adaptation of the 1897 play, but this time with a key difference: In previous incarnations, the character considers himself an unworthy lover due to his protruding proboscis, whereas played by Dinklage, it's due to what a comrade calls his “unique physique.” This might sound like blasphemy to some, doing “Cyrano de Bergerac” without the nose. Yet it’s not a surprise how easily the story adapts to this particular performer. However fussy and specific the character, Rostand’s tale still speaks to something universal.
As an awkward adolescent, I was enraptured by the 1950 movie version — a staple of weekend afternoon UHF channel programming that had José Ferrer wearing a prosthetic schnoz to play the peacocking poet, full of blustery bravado and secret longing for his childhood friend Roxanne, a beautiful maiden pursued by a devilish Duke De Guiche. But alas, she only has eyes for the classically handsome, dim-bulb cadet Christian, for whom Cyrano ghostwrites flowingly emotive missives, wooing her with his words even if he must pretend they’re someone else’s. It’s a story that touches something inside of every writer, or really, anyone who has ever felt ugly and undeserving of love. This is probably why it’s been adapted in so many iterations, going all the way back to the very beginning of cinema with a two-minute short shown at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition.
Ferrer’s performance is generally considered definitive, but the nose has also been worn by Christopher Plummer, Derek Jacobi, Gerard Depardieu and Kevin Kline, to name just a few. The story likewise lends itself to contemporary updates such as Steve Martin’s “Roxanne,” Janeane Garafalo acting as Uma Thurman’s phone voice in “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” or — perhaps most traumatically for my generation — the “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” episode of “My So-Called Life,” in which Claire Danes’ Angela Chase learns that a love letter from Jared Leto was actually written by the nerdy boy next door, but she still gets in the car and drives off with the hot guy anyway, because that’s what happens in high school. (I’m obviously still not over this yet.)
Scripted by Dinklage’s wife Erica Schmidt, “Cyrano” is an old-fashioned musical in period costume but with new songs by indie rockers The National. In obnoxiously flashy films like “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina,” it often seemed like there was never a movie moment Joe Wright couldn’t gaudily over-direct, yet somehow his first full-bore Hollywood musical features some of his most restrained work, keeping a close-up intimacy with the characters as occasional ballets break out in the background. It hews to the spirit of the songs — which weirdly don’t seem to believe in bridges — as they never quite explode into full abandon, but rather flow alongside a cascading piano and the rat-a-tat rhythms of martial drums. The tunes don’t drive the story but instead serve as asides, in which the characters confess to us stuff they’d never tell each other. The net effect is sometimes more muted than you might wish, but a respectable effort regardless.
This is a beautiful performance by Dinklage, gallant and commanding but with heartbreak behind his eyes. He’s not a great singer but has a husky baritone that sounds a little like late-period Leonard Cohen (as do the doomy compositions in the story’s second half). The handsome, inarticulate Christian is less a figure of ridicule than in previous adaptations, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. with sincere humility and some of the screenplay’s more amusing turns of phrase. (Him asking “What’s the word for when you’re bad at expressing yourself?” got a good laugh out of me.) For sheer hissability, you’ve got an unrecognizable Ben Mendelsohn as De Guiche, oozing unctuousness beneath bad dentures and a powdered wig.
A pitfall of “Cyrano” productions is that sometimes Roxanne can come across as little more than a pretty prize to be fought for among men. Schmidt’s script tries to give her more agency than in past incarnations, but the big surprise with Haley Bennett here is how much Wright’s camera simply adores her. She’s one of those actresses we’ve been told is on the verge of stardom for years now, but this is the first time she’s made any real impression on me. Bursting with vivacity in a movie that occasionally trends too morose, the fashion in which she’s photographed left me unsurprised to find that off-camera she’s the director’s significant other. Similarly, when considering the opportunities afforded Dinklage by his wife’s screenplay, the movie makes a mighty convincing argument for spouses working together. But then I guess it’s fitting that “Cyrano” should feel so much like a love letter.
“Cyrano” opens in theaters on Thursday, Feb. 24.