Director Joe Wright (Atonement) may very well have made the finest film of his career in his romantic musical Cyrano.
The film held its world premiere tonight at the Palm Theater in Telluride, and I was not prepared for such an emotional and gorgeous piece of filmmaking. It’s almost unfair to see something like this in a film festival setting where you’ve already seen two or three films that day or you’re worried about what you’re going to run off to next. If you even have the energy left in you, that is… But sometimes a great movie gives you a shot of adrenaline.
Cyrano gave me that experience and more.
Starring an astounding Peter Dinklage as the tortured hero, the film was adapted from the off-Broadway stage musical written and directed by Erica Schmidt, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, and starred Dinklage and Haley Bennett, reprising her role in the film as Roxanne. The story remains the same. Cyrano secretly loves Roxanne but is too proud to express it (in this case, it’s due to his height, not a nose). Roxanne falls in love with Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who looks the part but lacks Cyrano’s poetic soul. Cyrano and Christian agree to allow Cyrano to essentially ghostwrite love letters to Roxanne, and the story takes dark turns from there.
For the first hour, what Wright and Seamus McGarvey’s camerawork get absolutely right is the intoxicating nature of love. Every scene bursts with kinetic energy, color, and life. Characters sway and melt to the rhythms of the gorgeous score (written by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National). Even as most moments adopt a more fantastical approach, you’re swept up in the majesty of it all.
Wright brilliantly underscores the moments of unrequited passions through all of the cinematic tools available to him in a musical setting: the fluidity of the human body through choreography, light and shadows, and even the textures of the production design. There’s a particularly jaw-dropping moment where Roxanne, swooning over her latest letter, steps through a gauzy curtain while letters dance around her in the air. A highlight of the film for sure.
Dinklage has frankly never been better in this role. I was admittedly unsure of his singing voice, but he acquits himself well in that department. He’s not a natural singer, but he more than makes up for that by imbuing his vocals with raw emotion, something the best singers in the world often forget. His Cyrano is a proud man – his tragic flaw – who fears rejection from the woman he loves above all things. Dinklage’s expressive face, particularly his eyes, navigates the tricky terrain between wit and sarcasm to a stoic front to a let-all-guards-down expression of deep love and devotion. Dinklage has never really given a performance like this, and it’s absolutely the best work the very talented actor has done to date.
He’s particularly devastating when delivering the film’s final line, a punch-to-the-gut moment that left many in the audience emotionally wrecked.
Bennett, previously seen in Hillbilly Elegy, also surprises with a remarkable confidence employed in the tricky role of Roxanne. A character whose sole life goal is to find love often finds a challenge in remaining compelling enough for the audience to understand why others feel so deeply for her. Yet, Bennett gives Roxanne a coy, nearly coquettish air that works well in the film. She also boasts a fantastic singing voice, soaring through a late film solo that would have delivered a standing ovation in live theater. Also surprisingly strong is Harrison Jr. who manages to take the role of Christian, a potentially one-note role in the hands of a lesser actor, and give him a poet’s soul by the end of the film.
Cyrano likely won’t be an across the board slam dunk for some audiences. You have to let yourself go and luxuriate in the unbridled romanticism of the film, and that’s a hard thing for some to do. But those who let the film in will find it intoxicating. It will inspire passion in many audiences. I’m not quite ready to talk about awards chances yet. Clearly, MGM is high on the film as they’ve screened it four months ahead of its release date. They feel something here, and if you’re talking Oscar chances, Cyrano is going to be, in my opinion, a clear number one vote for those who love it, buoyed by extraordinary below the line crafts.
Also in my opinion, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a performance as emotional, as funny, as charismatic, and as quietly devastating as Peter Dinklage’s work here as Cyrano.
This role has clearly tapped into something within Dinklage and, coupled with Joe Wright’s career-best direction, they have delivered a very special piece of cinema indeed.