We’ve seen our fair share of Cyrano de Bergerac retellings; over the past six years, there have been half-a-dozen variations of Edmund Rostand’s classic big-nose simp tale, revamped as stories of young unrequite within the confines of love’s most dangerous battlefield: a Netflix high school. Amidst the sea of twenty-somethings staring blankly down cinder-block hallways and soundtracks ripped straight from Spotify synth-pop Daily Mixes, it should be a welcome change for an accomplished filmmaker like Joe Wright to bring the narrative back to its period roots. Given the director’s recent bizarre and misguided musical forays, one would hope that he recaptures the magic of his former success, breathing life into aristocratic historical romances (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina).
Unfortunately, Wright’s new effort signifies that his head-scratching musical predilections are here to say. Cyrano follows the efforts of Cyrano de Bergerac (a swooning Peter Dinklage; his wife wrote and directed the off-Broadway musical which inspired this adaptation, of which she also penned the script) as he secretly pines for his childhood friend/cousin/it doesn’t matter Roxanne (Haley Bennett, Wright’s partner). His true expressions of love are relegated through writing letters, addressed from a fellow cadet Christian (a himbo-fied Kelvin Harrison Jr., finally breaking away from his tortured-high-schooler roles), who is similarly in love with Roxanne. Hijinks ensue.
Cyrano’s saving grace lies in Dinklage’s buoyant performance -- he brings the titular character to life with equal parts swagger, pain and longing. That is, when he’s not hiding behind layers and layers of autotune that mask his husky growl. However, it is that overprocessed vocal practice that is endemic to modern mainstream musicals which perfectly embodies the film’s shortcomings. The imperfections of the human voice -- and all of the emotion and personality that come with it -- are exchanged for a technically proficient, yet artificial sheen. We feel nothing when he heroically fends off a slew of incompetent assassins, or when he leads his fellow cadets in a supposedly soaring group number, during which he spills his heart to his one true love -- there is a dearth of joy in Cyrano.
Cinematically, everything else is just okay -- the super-soft telenovelic lighting, the earthen color palette, the competent-yet-stiff supporting cast (Bennett as the white-bread Roxanne pouts her way through, Harrison Jr.’s Christian is given nothing to do, and Ben Mendelsohn does his standard evil Ben Mendelsohn thing) -- it’s all entirely forgettable.
But let us not forget -- this is a musical. And the opening twenty minutes (reminiscent of Moulin Rouge but without the sparkles and cocaine) only foreshadows how discordant the narrative will become; Roxanne’s hollow “I Want” song “Someone to Say,” by which her dreams are reflected through the reflection of a carriage window, and Cyrano’s discount Epic Rap Battles of History riff “When I Was Born,” which features an on-stage sword fight that turns deadly, are both indicative of the regrettable truth that these tunes don’t match the picture. The National’s plodding, insipid lyricism mixed with their weightless, saccharine instrumentation isn’t a good match for a story about a master wordsmith with cyclonic charisma. The rest of the music (aside from the elegiac war number “Wherever I Fall,” starkly photographing soldiers weaving in-between billowing clouds of smoke and dust) similarly fails to impress.
Although this eccentric pairing of book and music may have worked in Schmidt’s theatrical staging, the sense of immediacy and wonder that accompanies live performance is lost in translation. The film will live and die in the very high school English classroom it seeks to escape; it’s something disillusioned teachers put on to quell philistinic youth as they nurse their wicked hangover.