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Review: Peter Dinklage earns your love in the snazzy (but not schnozzy) musical ‘Cyrano’

A man and a woman lean on opposite sides of a large stone column.
Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage in the movie “Cyrano.”
(Peter Mountain / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)
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Since “Cyrano de Bergerac” has always been about the superficial nature of appearances, there’s something fitting about the exterior renovations that have given rise to Joe Wright’s sweet, earnest and sometimes enchanting new “Cyrano.” For starters, the movie is a full-blown musical: Its roots lie not only in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play of romantic misdirection but also in a stage show that was written and directed by Erica Schmidt (who adapted the screenplay herself) and features songs and score by members of the rock band the National. And Peter Dinklage, who starred in that musical’s 2019 off-Broadway production, superbly reprises his role here, giving us a Cyrano who is widely mocked not for an oversize proboscis but rather for a diminutive physique. The insults flung his way may be different, but his sense of social rejection — and his fear that he isn’t fit to love — cuts just as deep.

Maybe it even cuts a little deeper. Nearly every screen actor who has taken on Cyrano de Bergerac — among them José Ferrer (an Oscar winner for his 1950 performance), Christopher Plummer, Gérard Depardieu, Kevin Kline and Steve Martin, if you count “Roxanne” (and why wouldn’t you?) — has donned a fake nose for the occasion, availing himself of prosthetic putty, special effects or some ingenious confection of both. Dinklage comes to the screen with no such enhancements and is all the more poignant for it: What we see onscreen is all him. But it’s not just the lack of artificial adornment that makes his Cyrano feel like such an authentic, lived-in creation. It’s also the silver-tongued wit, the steel-trap mind, the sense that whatever this Cyrano may lack in physical stature he more than makes up for in intellectual acuity.

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Put it another way: Whoever realized that Cyrano de Bergerac could be reconceived as a less frisky, more sober Tyrion Lannister was clearly on to something. “Cyrano,” sailing into theaters this week with a PG-13 rating, is decidedly not “Game of Thrones”; no White Walkers are in evidence (though Ben Mendelsohn’s scowling, heavily powdered Count de Guiche comes close), and apart from an early duel between Cyrano and a high-society sneerer (Joshua James), the bloodshed is kept to a tasteful minimum. But Cyrano has more in common with Tyrion than a few consonants and vowels. In both cases, the threat of pariahdom has forced a Dinklage character to become the smartest man in the room, deadly with a quip and deadlier still with a blade, as we see when Cyrano deftly fends off a nighttime ambush by one of his many powerful enemies.

In these moments, this “Cyrano” duly swashes and buckles, to diverting if somewhat perfunctory effect. It’s more enjoyable when it sings, spinning the busy, farcical romantic machinery of Rostand’s plot into an interconnected series of wistful pop arias. (The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner composed the music, while the band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, penned the lyrics with wife and frequent collaborator Carin Besser.) It makes sense that Roxanne, the much-coveted object of Cyrano’s affections, is also the movie’s most adept singer: As played by a luminous Haley Bennett (who made her screen debut playing a pop star in 2007’s “Music and Lyrics”), she ascends an emotional tier whenever she croons a line as simple as “I’d give anything for someone to say / That they can’t live without me and they’ll be there forever.”

A man with a sword is surrounded by soldiers with swords.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the movie “Cyrano.”
(Peter Mountain / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

Not just someone, of course. While Cyrano pines hopelessly for Roxanne, she locks eyes with Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome young soldier who more than satisfies her yearning for male beauty. But it will fall to the conflicted Cyrano to answer her deeper need for wit and poetry, ghostwriting Christian’s love letters with a florid eloquence that feels both selfless and self-indulgent. The men’s reluctant alliance reaches its usual climax beneath Roxanne’s balcony, where her voice and Cyrano’s — which she mistakes for Christian’s — dovetail in a soaringly lovely duet. (It makes for much better woman-in-the-window cinema than Wright’s Netflix dud “The Woman in the Window.”) And before long, love leads to war, coming to a head in an elaborate battle sequence shot on the ashen slopes of Mt. Etna, that very active Sicilian volcano. It’s a gratuitous flourish, perhaps, but also a suitably operatic one for this tale of grand passions explosively unleashed.

Wright has a penchant — sometimes a gift, sometimes a weakness — for such bold aesthetic flourishes. “Pride & Prejudice,” his first and still finest movie, established a visual style of vibrant immediacy, with serpentine long takes and elaborate mise-en-scène. His ornately stylized “Anna Karenina” threw formal caution (and realism) to the wind, not adapting so much as transfiguring Tolstoy’s classic with a sweeping display of Brechtian artifice. The experiments don’t always come off — “Atonement,” while dazzling, exuded more trickery than truth — but there’s something energizing about the director’s efforts to rattle the prestige-cinema foundations.

“Cyrano,” already drawn from Schmidt’s refurbished source material, seems less beholden to a rigid formal scheme than some of Wright’s earlier adaptations. For all the curtains-and-chandeliers sumptuousness of Sarah Greenwood’s production design and the unfussy elegance of Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran’s Oscar-nominated costumes, the movie — shot by Wright’s regular cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey — feels loose and light on its feet. Part of that stems from its many outdoor set pieces (itself a result of a mid-pandemic shooting schedule), including a charming seaside dance sequence in which Christian’s fellow soldiers bear him gracefully aloft.

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A man stands in the street, with a stone wall and steps visible behind him.
Peter Dinklage plays the title character in the movie “Cyrano.”
(Peter Mountain / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

But it also has something to do with the indeterminate historical and geographical setting. While “Cyrano de Bergerac” is usually set in 17th century Paris, this one was mostly shot in the Sicilian town of Noto, whose limestone walls and Baroque architecture stand in for an unspecified European city of old. That vagueness leaches some cultural specificity from Wright’s conception, though the idea seems to be to usher this “Cyrano” into a realm of universal, untethered feeling, where the common currency and language are, respectively, love and music. (Here it may be worth noting that Dinklage and Schmidt are married, and Bennett and Wright are partners; along with Berninger and Besser, think of these as romantic behind-the-scenes footnotes to a movie that wears its romanticism unabashedly on its sleeve.)

“Cyrano” slips in and out of that realm fitfully; it’s not always the most graceful retelling of this oft-told tale, and its ardent defense of love for love’s sake can feel paper-thin one moment and swooningly sincere the next. What gives the movie its sustaining pulse is Dinklage. Singing may not be this actor’s obvious forte (his ’90s punk-band days aside), which might seem like a fatal setback for a character defined by his masterly self-expression. But even when Dinklage’s vocals wobble, his soulful baritone and melancholy delivery carry the day. His expressions alone bring out the deep, aching vulnerability in this Cyrano, whose anguished feelings for Roxanne register with almost palpable force. “’Cause every time I see you,” he sings, “I am overcome” — and so, in these moments, are we.

'Cyrano'

Rating: PG-13, for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material and brief language

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 25 in general release

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