Peter Dinklage is nothing if not soulful. The 52-year-old actor can do comedic, and charming, and a color palette’s worth of rage; in movies like The Station Agent (2003) or on any given Game of Thrones episode, you’ll likely get a lovely combo of all three. But give him the chance to communicate melancholia — let this veteran thespian unleash a sad-eyed look under a heavy brow — and you see an entirely different side of Dinklage come out. It makes perfect sense that he’d take on the title character of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a man of wit and talents forever denied his true love. The fact that this Cyrano would be sans prominent schnoz made it unique. The notion that he’d also be singing and dancing (and not while wearing space pants, mind you) was…unusual.
Yet when Dinklage played the lovelorn poet in 2019, in an off-Broadway musical production mounted by his longtime collaborator and wife Erica Schmidt, he acquitted himself nicely. You wouldn’t exactly claim that you’d witnessed the second coming of Tommy Tune, nor would you claim that you’d been forced to endure something along the lines of, say, this. Apparently, the star picked up some ace swordplaying skills while hanging out in Westeros as well. But it was those scenes of Dinklage simply pining and brooding that gave the role heart, heat and wattage. The actor knew how to tap into the forever-burned hopeless romantic, channeling his passion one gifted-away stanza at a time.
Cyrano, director Joe Wright’s screen adaptation of Schmidt’s re-imagining of Rostrand’s 1897 drama, strives to be its own interpretation of the material. Its lush production design can best be described as Overripe Historical Chic; the play’s numbers, cowritten by the National frontman Matt Berninger, his spouse Carin Besser and bandmates Aaron and Bryce Dessner, are given the full Freed Unit treatment. (One sequence, in which a long line of soldiers can be seen rhythmically clashing swords in deep focus, before cutting to an overhead shot of them dancing in an open courtyard by the sea, is indeed breathtaking. You feel as if you’re peering down into the world’s biggest Mediterranean music box.) In terms of being a late addition to what’s turned into a banner year for movie musicals, it falls somewhere in between Spileberg’s fabulous West Side Story and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fawning Tick, Tick…Boom! This was the British filmmaker who gave the world Anna Karenina as a Moulin Rouge-ish meta-spectacle and an austere staging of Ian McEwan’s Atonement that breaks for a five-minute, single-shot siege at Dunkirk, after all, so Wright is clearly willing to take big swings at the risk of serious misses.
But you may want to view this latest stab at Cyrano’s story through the lens of documenting Dinklage’s performance for posterity in lieu of seeing it as a classic getting a fresh coat of paint. The song essentially remains the same: Our hero loves a flaxen-haired, freckled young woman named Roxanne (Haley Bennett). She, in turn, swoons over the equally smitten Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome soldier who lacks Cyrano’s gift for gab. The “freak” helps his inarticulate, gorgeous rival woo Roxanne by penning eloquent love letters in Christian’s name, all of which channel his own unrequited feelings, yadda yadda yadda. The big difference is that said song is now literally sung for the most part, and the signature protruding proboscis is replaced by what one character calls Cyrano’s “unique physique.” Still, he remains an outsider. Cyrano may have social standing, the admiration of his fellow aesthetes, a vocabulary to die for and be second to none on the battlefield, yet his shortness of stature will always mark him as unworthy and undesirable in his own eyes.
“Undesirable,” however, isn’t a word you’d use to characterize Dinklage here. You would not use “unworthy” to describe how he imprints on a role that countless other actors have left their marks on, either. And while he gets lots of support from the other cast members — Bennett and Harrison Jr. remain among the most consistently reliable actors under 35; Ben Mendelsohn turns the villainous Duke De Guiche into a slithering, entitled reptile — this is Dinklage’s show. Now aided and armed with the biggest present the movies have bestowed upon us, i.e. the close-up, he’s able to unleash a series of subtly broken expressions that emphasize the tragedy of this doomed, distressed de Bergerac’s story. Dinklage is given the chance to show off his swashbuckler’s agility during an attack scene (which is turned into a show-offy single-take not because it’s right, but because it’s Wright and he just can’t resist doing it), and his verbal dexterity via a harmonious, insult-heavy duel.
So even when Bennett is tearing into a Broadway-style lung-burster like “I Need More,” or the movie gives the chorus a chance to flex in the stand-out group dirge “Wherever I Fall,” it’s Cyrano you keep wondering about, Cyrano that remains the sun these planets orbit around. Dinklage gives you his appeal and his sense of self-loathing. It’s both the single most sorrowful and the sexiest take on Cyrano you’ve ever seen.
And if the magnetism of what he’s doing happens to eclipse everything happening around it, despite the film frequently turning up the musical-theater sound and fury to grand-finale levels, so be it. Cyrano may sometimes feels like its struggling to find a way to say something new about a beloved, centuries-old work of art, one that’s been updated and deconstructed and reconstructed ad infinitum. Once the sex-symbol movie star starts whispering in its ear what to say, however, and how to act, and why it’s the well-spoken sadness of it all that makes it so swoonworthy — those are the moments that make this musical positively sing.