Cyrano (2021)

Joe Wright | 2hr 3min

The tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th century French cadet, duellist, and writer, is one that is rooted deeply in theatre tradition, with adaptations spanning back to the original staged dramatisation of his life in 1897. There is a classical power to its pure simplicity, telling a fable of unrequited love between the disfigured man and his distant cousin, Roxanne, who longs for Christian, a handsome soldier, while also being sought after by the cruel Duke De Guiche. But Joe Wright has also proven previously that it is in these adaptations of period pieces where his elegant style flourishes, using their archetypal narratives as a canvas for his sumptuous production design and fluid camerawork, calling back to Max Ophül’s swooning mid-century romances.

The differences in this interpretation are strikingly evident from the start, particularly in the casting of Peter Dinklage whose dwarfism replaces Cyrano’s traditionally long nose, and the anachronistic, folk rock musical numbers composed by American band The National. Where Wright’s version falters is in its clumsy attempts to reconcile these songs with its narrative pace, occasionally hitting on pieces of contrived sentiment. Rather than building scenes towards an organic emotional outpouring, many of the songs here rather land in the middle of ordinary conversations and end with awkward deflations, jarringly returning to plain dialogue almost immediately. It isn’t easy handling some of this material without letting it come off a little forced, and it takes everything in Peter Dinklage’s power to smooth over these bumps. His co-stars Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. don’t always fare so well, who in comparison to his weighty screen presence float by without making as much of an impact.

Not just the soft, warm lighting, but the light fixtures themselves playing a role in this gorgeous shot from the theatre.

From a literary perspective, direct comparisons can be made between Cyrano’s traditional narrative and that of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both being rooted in French history and strikingly similar archetypes between its four leads. Perhaps the most significant difference though is in Cyrano’s assistance of Christian, helping him win over Roxanne with his romantic poetry. Much like his Hunchback counterpart Phoebus, Christian is a handsome simpleton, though he uniquely possesses his own insecurities in seeing how Roxanne falls for Cyrano’s words, all the while claiming them as his own. While we wonder whether it is Christian’s looks or Cyrano’s words that Roxanne loves, both continue clinging to her affections, realising that without each other they cannot be the full person she desires.

Wright’s camera gliding through these archways as duellists strike formations with the music on either side – an elegant piece of choreography.

The exquisite style that Wright brings to such a delicate tale of longing very deliberately recalls the graceful long takes he used in Pride and Prejudice, though in his staging of gorgeous dance numbers and even one thrilling piece of fight choreography, there is an added complexity to its movement. As it manoeuvres between rows of duellists fighting in synchronicity to the music and lifts above crowds in sweeping crane shots, Wright plays into his greatest strengths as a filmmaker, exploring this splendidly detailed piece of history with his restlessly intrigued camera.

A bright light diffused through this magnificent set, shining a holy aura upon Cyrano and Roxanne in their final moments together.

As for the period décor, costuming, and lighting which it studies with such fascination, Wright captures a rare sort of Baroque beauty in evoking the painterly mise-en-scène of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The natural lighting of candles spreads through theatres, manors, and hovels with a warm, dim glow, but there is also a striking allure in the way he diffuses sunlight across a cavernous fort of sandstone walls and scaffolding in the last scene too, lending a holy aura to Cyrano and Roxanne’s final interaction. Perhaps the most outstanding visual highlight to be found here comes as our three leads musically swoon and ruminate over Cyrano’s poetry, and Wright sends his letters fluttering down across Roxanne’s bedroom and Parisian streets in a display of aesthetic brilliance.

Maybe the single finest shot of the film, Wright filling the frame with letters fluttering down in slow-motion in the number Every Letter.

The film’s sudden shift to the frontlines of war where Cyrano and Christian both serve within the French military is as harsh as it is devastatingly awe-inspiring, hitting us right away with a gorgeous snowy landscape pierced by dark, rocky outcrops and French camps. Without the delicate splendour of 17th century Paris at his disposal to dazzle us, wintery mountain ranges become the foundational beauty of these war scenes, pushing our male leads to the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion. It is also in these severe conditions though that we can feel the sweetness of Cyrano’s love for Roxanne persist even beyond Christian’s, his affection taking on an air of tragic fatefulness in the number Wherever I Fall where we watch the army’s dark silhouettes march from view into the thick, white mist. It is somewhat disappointing given its jaw-dropping style that Cyrano so often falls into forced sentiments, but Wright still at least proves his stylistic flair for handsome period pieces in his ingenious cinematography, using its visual majesty to engage with classical questions of poetry, war, and love.

A march of silhouettes into the mist, these mournful soldiers tragically accepting their fate.

Cyrano is currently playing in theatres.

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