(2021) Musical (MGM/United Artists) Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn, Monica Dolan, Bashir Salahuddin, Joshua James, Anjana Vasan, Ruth Sheen, Glen Hansard, Sam Amidon, Scott Folan, Mark Benton, Richard McCabe, Peter Wright, Tim McMullan, Mark Bagnall, Mike Shepherd, Paul Biddiss, Katy Owen, Paul Hunter, Celeste Dodwell. Directed by Joe Wright
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, MGM Studios was known for their classic musicals, from those created especially for the screen to those fresh from the stages of Broadway. Times have changed since then; musicals are less popular with theatrical audiences, MGM is no longer the dominant studio in Hollywood (although they did at one point buy United Artists, a studio best known for being the home to the Bond franchise). Earlier than that, however, French playwright Edmund Rostand wrote the classic romance Cyrano de Bergerac, which always (it seemed to me) to be perfect fodder for a musical. There have been several attempts at setting the classic Rostand play to music, but this one finally gives the story the music it deserves.
Most of you are likely familiar with the story, even if you didn’t read about it in high school Lit; Cyrano de Bergerac (Dinklage) is a well-known man whose soulful poetry and rapier-like wit is the talk of the town. Sharper still is his skill with the sword. He is the type of man even in 18th century France who should have his pick of women, but one thing holds him back; his height (in the original, Cyrano was self-conscious about his prominent nose).
He is deeply in love with his friend, the beautiful Roxanne (Bennett) who is also being pursued by the pompous and devious Count De Guiche (Mendelsohn), who is in charge of His Majesty’s armies in one of the many wars France always seemed to find itself involved in back then. Cyrano is a soldier, but it is with one of his new recruits, handsome Christian (Harrison) to whom Roxanne has given her heart. In turn, Christian is smitten with Roxanne.
But Roxanne wants to be wooed, not just with flowers and longing looks, but with passionate love letters. Christian might have the makings of a fine soldier, but he is completely ill-equipped for this kind of warfare and Cyrano, wanting above all else for the woman he loves to be happy, agrees to write the letters for Christian. But the deception soon proves costly, for everyone involved.
Joe Wright, after helming such lush period fare as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, had gone on a bit of a cold streak in the last few years, but shows himself back with a vengeance. His sweeping camera movements are perfect for the scope and romantic sentiment of the material, and the production design lends itself for just that kind of direction.
It doesn’t hurt that he gets one of the finest actors of our generation, Peter Dinklage, to play the lead. Dinklage doesn’t have a heroic singing voice, but he has an honest one and it is perfectly suited to the music, written by the brothers Dessner of the National (that band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, wrote the lyrics along with his wife Carin Besser, who also fulfills the same function for the National). The music is decidedly non-Broadway, and like the music of that band has a deeply wistful, romantic quality that is absolutely perfect for the story.
The off-Broadway stage play was adapted for the screen by Erica Schmidt (who also wrote the stage play), who happens to be Dinklage’s wife, and to further add to the nepotism element, Bennett is married to Wright. So it’s no surprise that the cast and crew seem incredibly comfortable working together and that comfort shows on the screen.
I can probably continue spouting off superlatives for this incredible film, which deserves all of them and more, but I don’t want to be boring (which this movie definitely is not). Anyone who has ever loved someone who didn’t love them back will relate to Cyrano’s plight, and for my money, getting Dinklage to play this role was a stroke of genius. Dinklage has always excelled at expressing emotions non-verbally and in the scene where Roxanne informs Cyrano of her love for Christian, it is absolutely heartbreaking to watch Dinklage’s reaction as Cyrano.
Schmidt also modernized Roxanne somewhat; she was a bit shallow in Rostand’s play, and there is a certain amount of that here as well (her attraction is essentially to Christian’s looks initially), but Roxanne wants more than just a pretty face. She is also not the luminous, nearly unattainable goddess that Roxanne is often portrayed as, but more of a pretty girl next door sort. Some might find her a bit too ordinary to inspire the depth of feeling in all three of the men here, but I kind of like that Schmidt made her less of an object here.
This is a movie that goes for your emotional throat and never releases it once the fangs are in, which of course is what Rostand wanted to do all along when he wrote his play more than a century ago. There are some incredible moments here – the soldiers fatalistic song “Where I Fall” is an absolute highlight, and Wright employs pro singers like Glen Hansard of the Swell Season, and Sam Amidon. I know that the initial plan was to release this in time for Oscar consideration, but that plan changed which is a shame because I suspect that the film would have some impact on the nominations. This is very clearly the best movie musical since Les Miserables and certainly one of the best movies of the year, even this early in it.
REASONS TO SEE: Dinklage is perfectly cast and does a fabulous job. The music is absolutely amazing. Lush production values. A movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. Rough around the edges where it needs to be. The best movie musical in ten years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Bennett might be a little bit too “girl next door” to be Roxanne.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some of it brutal; there’s also suggestions of intimacy, brief profanity and mature thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dinklage and Bennett reprise their roles here from the stage version, which they premiered in Connecticut in 2018 before a brief off-Broadway run in 2019.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roxanne
FINAL RATING: 10/10