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‘Cyrano’ review: Peter Dinklage shines in a strangely muted musical

Realism is a plague on modern movie musicals, ‘Cyrano’ is no exception.

Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage in 'Cyrano'.
(Image: © MGM/United Artists)

Our Verdict

'Cyrano' is seemingly a film at war with itself, almost ashamed by its status as a musical but beholden to the expectation that it should carry over the popularity of the recent stage show.

For

  • - Peter Dinklage is as magnetic a presence as ever
  • - Haley Bennett is a great Roxanne
  • - The sword fighting is surprisingly well-staged for being such a minor part of the film

Against

  • - The musical elements feel oddly misplaced and deprioritized

There's been something of a trend in the movie musical in the last decade or so that Cyrano, a new movie musical starring Peter Dinklage, unfortunately falls into. In a likely bid to chase awards prestige, many musicals have leaned into a more realistic style on the big screen, robbing them of the same fantastical appeal that enables them to thrive on stage. Cyrano, an adaptation of Erica Schmidt’s stage musical that is itself an adaptation of the 1897 Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac, appears to be a casualty to this mindset, arriving to the screen under Joe Wright’s direction with what is best described as misplaced priorities.

For the uninitiated, Cyrano is the 17th century tale of a cadet and poet who is derided as a freak by the community he serves. (In the original play, it was for a big nose, but this adaptation matches Dinklage’s casting to commentate on prejudice against dwarfism, something Dinklage continues to champion against, including the upcoming Snow White remake.) Cyrano loves the noblewoman Roxanne (Haley Bennett, reprising her role from the stage show), but she has only ever seen him as her closest friend. When she comes to him to ask that he pass along her affections to a fellow cadet, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Cyrano is heartbroken.

However, he quickly comes to realize that Christian is completely inarticulate and incapable of wooing Roxanne. So Cyrano hatches a scheme to write letters on Christian’s behalf, delivering his own proclamations of love under the illusion of the more conventionally handsome suitor. Yet the scheme starts to unravel when a more powerful noble (Ben Mendelsohn, villainous as ever) sweeps in to claim Roxanne as his own.

The strength of the underlying drama is what will draw most people to Cyrano; it's what has made the original play endure for more than 100 years. Mendelsohn, Harrison and Bennett give great supporting performances, with Bennett in particular giving more dimension to a role that could have been waifish and naïve but instead comes across as lovestruck and trusting that Cyrano would be honest with his own feelings.

But this is Dinklage’s show to shine in, and he is an extremely compelling lead. Not only is he an extremely gifted orator who is able to deliver both prose and naturalistic dialogue with appropriate gravitas, but he also conveys the vulnerability of a man who believes he can never rise beyond the station that society has dictated to him. He may try with an extremely learned grasp of sword fighting — lending itself to a few extremely well-staged action scenes — but it’s understandable why he might feel he can only pine for Roxanne from afar and why he might think his proxy relationship through Christian is the best chance he’ll ever have.

Where Cyrano fails to deliver is as a musical, as it has a strangely muted relationship with its songs. The movie's songs — composed by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, with lyrics from The National frontman Matt Berninger and his wife Carin Besser — is not particularly filled with bombast, leaning more heavily into the tragic nature of the romance. Wright’s direction, however, makes the whole affair feel sleepy in a way that surely carries better on stage. Dance choreography lingers in the background of scenes as a seeming begrudging acknowledgment that it should be there. 

While the singing is uniformly good, the accompanying musical arrangement seems to have been simplified and mixed so low that the voices dominate and might as well be singing a cappella. In fact, the film would probably fare that much better by dismissing its musical elements entirely and hewing closer to the original play, for at least then there wouldn’t be a tonal dissonance.

Cyrano is seemingly a movie at war with itself, almost ashamed by its status as a musical but beholden to the expectation that it should carry over the popularity of the recent stage show. It’s not a bad movie, held together most notably by Peter Dinklage’s magnetic presence, but it’s a confused one, trying to appeal to Oscar-baiting sensibilities while downplaying the elements that might lend a story like this to musical melodrama.

Cyrano released in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 17, 2021, but is getting a wider U.S. release on Jan. 28. It's U.K. release is coming Feb. 25.

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.