starring Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn
screenplay by Erica Schmidt, based on the play by Edmond Rostand
directed by Joe Wright
by Walter Chaw There's a scene in Joe Wright's derided Pan where Nirvana's anthemic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is stirringly transposed into an indentured/enslaved orphans' lament. I thought to myself that Wright had a musical in him if he wanted, and here it is, this umpteenth adaptation of Cyrano (de Bergerac), which I fought against for a little while and then went along with. I had a similar experience with Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, where an old idea presented in an earnest and earnestly gonzo way lives or dies by our investment in the chemistry of its central pair and the melancholy embedded in the thought that every love story is a tragedy eventually. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National wrote the songs and score for this musical reimagining of Rostand's fable. They are the band I have seen the most times in concert. They were my kids' first experience at Red Rocks--we planned it that way, planting the seed maybe for somewhere down the line when they will look back and understand why the band's stories of loss, regret, and the briefness of all things spoke to me so loudly.
They're a perfect match, along with Wright, along with Peter Dinklage in a transcendent, and translucent, turn as starcross'd Cyrano, captain of the guard and lover from afar of the effervescent Roxanne (Haley Bennett). She's being wooed by the cartoonishly evil Duke (Ben Mendelssohn) as well as a handsome young recruit, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who is as physically perfect as he is terminally tongue-tied. Christian is a source of sport in previous adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac, and it's always bothered me a little bit. Here, he's given more of the fullness he receives in the original play as a man tortured by his inarticulateness, a spiritual muteness built into him as it's built into so many men in martial cultures. Together, Christian and Cyrano woo Roxanne, the latter lending the former his eloquence. Both are in love with her, and when things reach a terminal crisis, Christian begs Cyrano to tell her the truth. That way she has a choice, free of art and deception. Yet Cyrano, a little person who has developed outsized skills physical and verbal, is afraid of being laughed at for his stature. (In previous incarnations, it's Cyrano's nose.) I loved the character when Gerard Depardieu tackled it for Jean-Paul Rappeneau, and I've mellowed on Steve Martin's take on the material. But now I like Dinklage's interpretation best, because when he speaks of being humiliated and how society would reject their pairing, his and Roxanne's, the pain of it is astonishing and pure. (Dinklage's wife Erica Schmidt wrote this adaptation.)
The emotions are so large in Cyrano that I don't know why it didn't occur to me before now that it should be a musical, our most expressionistic genre. (Or, at least, the one most open to the kind of magic realism that sees an entire barracks swaying with crashing waves). One montage shows the participants in this ménage à trois synchronously writing and reading, on fire with the rapture of poetry. I wrote love letters to my wife when we were first getting to know each other. For our wedding, when we were too poor for much, I wrote her a whole book of them. Cyrano captures the excitement of writing and receiving love letters: the delays and propulsive resolutions, fasting and binging and the page you revisit and then collect in secret boxes or hollow trees. There's a scene where a group of soldiers about to march to certain death write their loved ones asking them not to cry, but I did. It's not a complicated story, Cyrano, but there's a reason we keep coming back to it. It's about pride most of all, risk of embarrassment and how everything we want is right there behind--just behind--our fear. How the bravest guard is only brave because he has the most to lose. Cyrano was something I really needed right now: a surprise new album by The National; a performance about a coward without a hint of cowardice.