Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Cyrano’?

Creating a musical for the stage or screen is one of the most difficult forms of contemporary entertainment.

Actor Peter Dinklage, who has dwarfism. AP photo by Evan Agostini/Invision

The director of the new movie “Cyrano,” Joseph Wright, loves books — or, put another way, taking acclaimed works of literature and interpreting, and in turn transforming, them for the screen. 

In “Pride and Prejudice,” he converted Jane Austen’s satirical tale of romance and class structure in early-1800s England into a robust, almost Gothic story of love and lust with his brooding leads Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. 

With “Atonement,” he and Ms. Knightley, again his leading lady, sensationalized Ian McEwan’s sad, intricate narrative of regret and expiation before, during, and after World War II with the help of a slinky green dress. 

Mr. Wright and, yet again, Ms. Knightley even took on “Anna Karenina,” considered by some to be the greatest novel of all time, and streamlined its political content to focus on its main melodrama, adding in heaps of sex as it steamed toward its tragic end. 

Of course, all movies could be accused of “sensationalizing” their source materials, whether they be classic works of literature, biographies, nonfiction accounts, childhood memories, etc. The question is not about appropriateness so much as whether it works as a two-hour entertainment and visual experience. 

In these terms, Mr. Wright’s filmic interpretations of literary texts certainly excel, with their swooping cinematography, imaginative sets and costuming, and attractive casts. 

His latest attempt at literal-to-pictorial alchemy, the just-released “Cyrano” — based on the play “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand and with Peter Dinklage in the lead role — contains all his signature directorial touches. Unfortunately, his cinematic tricks and technique don’t work this time, the fault lying mostly with the film’s screenplay and another element added to his usual mix: songs.

Creating a musical for the stage or screen is one of the most difficult forms of contemporary entertainment, and it’s always astounding when novices try their hand at one. Before its movie incarnation, this “Cyrano” began life as an off-Broadway musical written and directed by Mr. Dinklage’s wife, Erika Schmidt, with songs by members of the alternative rock band The National. 

It’s clear from the movie that none of them, including Mr. Wright, quite know how to stage musical numbers nor write songs that add character and advance a plot. From awkward mouthfuls of sung banalities, such as, “I’d give anything for someone to say/That they can’t live without me and they’ll be there forever,” to painfully embarrassing choreography like soldiers pseudo-vogueing while training in a fort, nearly every scene has a cringe-inducing moment, or two, or more.

Ironically, what this movie musical about Cyrano de Bergerac writing covert letters to a would-be lover most needed was its own Cyrano to wordsmith its way to cinematic success. Alas, the movie is personified by an ineloquent soldier character named Christian: His lyric, “all the words I don’t have and I can’t put together,” proves all too apt.

Mr. Dinklage deserves better. Substituting the original character’s romantic deficit of a large nose with the actor’s “unique physique” — that’s the screenplay’s phrase, not mine — may be an inspired choice but that’s as far as the movie’s good decisions go. 

The actor’s expressive face requires dialogue and lyrics with more variation and wit. Instead we get Cyrano telling the story’s baker/aspiring poet character to “sublimate” when writing odes to love, which leads the baker to write juvenile sexual metaphors based on his own breads and pastries. Who needs poetic sublimation when one can be literal and have one’s cake, too?


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