A respite from war. That’s what watching this film feels like right now. A respite from the heartbreaking drama of seeing Putin try to forcibly take Ukraine and make it part of his Russian empire.
And what better antidote to war than love: set sometime in the 1700s, presumably in France, Cyrano is a musical film that’s funny and romantic; thrilling and poignant.
Roxanne is young and lovely and much admired, but she’s also head-strong, witty and smart. She wants to love a man who’s her equal in these things, although she’s not averse to accepting an invitation to the theatre from the repulsive nobleman De Guiche. (She’s growing poorer by the day and wants a free ticket to the show.) She’s in the audience when Cyrano emerges from the crowd to eviscerate the performance of the pompous actor on stage. Cyrano enthralls the crowd with his witty wordplay and then with his swordsmanship after he’s forced to defend himself in a duel.
The next day Roxanne asks for a meeting with Cyrano. They’ve known each other since childhood, and Cyrano has secretly loved her for years. He dares to hope she might now feel the same despite his diminutive stature. But when she confesses she’s fallen in love, it’s for a new soldier in Cyrano’s regiment—someone she’s seen but never spoken with. Soon Cyrano is serving as their go-between and putting words in Christian’s mouth. The young soldier is undeniably handsome, but tongue-tied and awkward when trying to enflame Roxanne’s heart. “I will make you eloquent,” Cyrano says to Christian, “and you will make me handsome.” Letters fly between Roxanne and Christian; passion blooms for the right reasons under false pretenses. Meanwhile, De Guiche thinks he’s devised a way to eliminate his competition. Can this possibly end well?
Cyrano de Bergerac, a play by Edmond Rostand, made its debut on a Paris stage in 1897 and has been performed many times since in theatres and in films. This Cyrano began as an off-Broadway musical in 2019, which also starred Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett. Dinklage has had a long, successful career and has won multiple Emmys for his recent turn as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. As fate would have it, the playwright hired to adapt Cyrano was his wife, Erica Schmidt. She’s said in interviews that she didn’t have Peter in mind for the part, only that she wanted to lose the ‘big nose’—Cyrano’s original flaw as conceived by Edmond Rostand and pretty much used ever since. She didn’t want to stick a fake nose on the lead actor, she wanted to find something intrinsic to his character that made him doubt himself. One day the band she’d hired to write the music and lyrics (The National) came over to her house to work out some of the songs. Peter ended up reading some of the lines. She realized then that she’d found her Cyrano. As she recently told IndieWire, “Peter’s size has nothing to do with what makes him successful in this role. . . [It’s] his intelligence and his wit and facility with language. He has something in common with this character: ‘I don’t trust you’ll see me for who I am.’ Which is different from feeling unlovable.” I couldn’t agree more.
And then the director Joe Wright saw the play and asked Erica to write the screenplay for a film. He’s no stranger to romantic films, having directed Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, among others. He’s also no stranger to the leading lady. They’re a couple.
There’s much to enjoy about this film. The costumes (the costumer designers are nominated for Oscars), Haley Bennett’s beautiful voice; the scenery: shot mostly in a Medieval town in Sicily; the music. The songs “don’t function in a traditional musical-theater way,” according to Erica. “They don’t forward the action—they really are windows into the characters’ souls.”
Did I say that watching this film is a respite from war? Not quite. For as long as the spoken word has been written down, there have been wars in stories. Cyrano is no exception. If love does conquer all, then war…well, go see the movie for yourself.