Cyrano’s sprightly verses are the framework on which the story rests. But the spirit of the source seems lost in this musical translation.
“Panache” versus “Pride” condenses the fundamental difference in approach between Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac and Joe Wright’s 2021 musical rendition Cyrano. The different last word uttered by the titular hero in his dying breath in the new retelling provides insight into what it does right and what it doesn’t. As a filmmaker, Wright has always taken pride in his literary adaptations (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Woman in the Window) but what they have often lacked is panache. At their best, they have a deep musicality. At their worst, they suffer from a distracting theatricality. Cyrano falls somewhere in between. Though complemented by the score and lyrics by members of The National, it fails to capture the wit, the joy and the sense of an epic romance. Neither the verbal sparrings nor the sword fights have any sting, rhythm or energy.
This quasi-historical treatment fails to negotiate a free, seamless transition between reality and fantasy, a hallmark of any good musical where life seems like a symphony in search of its next movement.
“Panache,” a word introduced into the English language by the French play, not only described the feathery plume on Cyrano’s hat, but also symbolised his flamboyance, his courage and his selfless dedication to high ideals. This is a man who is introduced in the (play and) film’s opening moments, chasing a seasoned actor off the stage, besting a vain aristocrat in a duel, and throwing a bag of gold to cover the loss suffered by the patrons — all while singing a ballad about himself. To be sure, panache feeds into Cyrano’s pride but stems from an insecurity. In another revision of the source material, the screenplay by Erica Schmidt (based on her own stage musical) substitutes Cyrano’s long nose for short stature to accommodate the star, her own husband Peter Dinklage. The insecurity over his height and looks is why Cyrano believes himself to be unworthy of the love of his childhood friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett).
So, he channels his unrequited feelings into helping Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome but inarticulate cadet who has caught her eye, by writing soul-stirring letters of courtship. Convinced he could never be loved for who he is, Cyrano can only enjoy the vicarious satisfaction of an epistolary romance through Christian. Only in his dying moments will he realise how his pride came in the way of revealing the truth to Roxanne. At the end of the play, Cyrano takes some comfort in the fact that at least his idea of panache lives on even in death. In the musical, he bemoans his ego as the cause of his misery, that he loved his pride more than he did Roxanne. The bargain for an undying ideal over an unrealised romance is their shared fate.
More melancholic than joyous, Cyrano is a tuneful treatise on how high ideals come at the cost of personal desire. In a showcase of his dramatic if not vocal range, Dinklage taps into the self-loathing caused by our tendency to let other people’s judgments colour our own perception. Despite his selfless and noble ideals, Cyrano is most affected by his inability to fulfil the requirements of his own aesthetic ideal. When Roxanne confesses her love for Christian and asks Cyrano to help her in her romantic endeavour, the heartbreak visible on Dinklage’s face is as real as they come. This has always been a story loaded with irony. Cyrano’s passionate eloquence earns Christian the heart of the woman Cyrano loves. Roxanne won’t discover the true author of the love letters till Cyrano has lost every chance at a happy ending. Irony isn’t just rooted in the drama, but written into the very structure of a story about appearances vs truth.
Besides Dinklage, Bennett too reprises her role from the stage musical. Though radiant as Roxanne with an intelligence to match her beauty, even this contemporary retelling cannot find room for any drive in her life besides the desire to find a handsome husband with a gift for words. Ben Mendelsohn is a fine De Guiche, Cyrano’s antithesis motivated by nothing but personal desire. When Roxanne refuses to accept his proposal and marries Christian instead, de Guiche uses his power and influence to send Cyrano and Christian’s regiment to the frontlines of the war, setting the story towards its tragic conclusion.
Harrison Jr. plays Christian as more than just a handsome simpleton, conveying the frustration of a man who struggles to find the words to express his love with clarity and passion. Love can leave you tongue-tied, with words painfully beyond your reach. With the casting of Harrison Jr. as Christian and Bashir Salahuddin as Cyrano’s closest confidant Le Bret, the film follows a recent tradition of changing the race of key characters in period pieces. If a society discriminates based on a person’s stature and station, you better believe that society will discriminate based on skin colour too. As many recent films that have employed colour-blind casting, Cyrano too doesn’t bother reckoning with how race affects the lives of its characters.
One of the play’s most defining moments is when Christian woos Roxanne from below her balcony with Cyrano feeding him lines from the shadows. Reimagined as a triet in the film, the scene captures their longing, but it lacks its usual potency. In a clear miscalculation, the comic relief of the source material is neutered almost entirely. The most poignant moment has nothing to do with the central love triangle: the sequence of “Wherever I Fall” finds besieged soldiers conveying their last wishes to loved ones before a suicidal battle. What little feel Wright has for sensuality or choreography can be seen in a sequence set in Ragueneau’s pastry shop, where the bakers are kneading dough while Dinklage sings “Your Name.”
As the music doesn’t work in perfect tandem with the visuals, the results are well short of breath-taking. Even if the songs borrow from modern traditions of rap, gospel and R&B, the final result suffers from a bland homogeneity. No one here has the voice to belt showstoppers. Dinklage’s baritone has a warmth and clarity, but not the power of Matt Berninger’s. Though Mendelsohn relishes the challenge, his “What I Deserve” solo truly tests the limits of his capabilities. Bennett however possesses a velvety enough voice to soften the rough octaves of her fellow crooners.
When the singing and choreography converge with the dialogue organically, the musical can transcend the artifice of its form. Song-and-dance numbers can express what mere words can’t, and offer cathartic release. Cyrano’s sprightly verses are the framework on which the story rests. But the spirit of the source seems lost in this musical translation. No period-specific sets, corsets or ghoulish make-up can transport us as the verses themselves. Even if you can forgive the lack of panache, you can’t forgive the lack of poetry.
Cyrano is now available to rent and buy on Google Play Movies, YouTube and iTunes.
Prahlad Srihari is a film and music writer based in Bengaluru.