By John H. Foote
(****) In Theatres
The great love story for the ages is said to be Romeo and Juliet. Frankly. I have always preferred Cyrano de Bergerac, written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand, a mature and brilliant love story that vastly soars past Romeo and Juliet. No question, Shakespeare created a magnificent piece of theatre, but for adults who understand the depths of love beyond a teenage romance, this story excels.
In 1982, I saw a stage production of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Portraying Cyrano was the gifted farcical actor Heath Lamberts, a risky choice for the role but one that proved inspired. Lamberts was brilliant, delighting audiences and critics for two seasons. If you’re not familiar with the story, Cyrano is typically played as a lethal though diminutive swordsman with the gentle heart of a poet who falls in love with the beautiful Roxanne, a woman who is unattainable to him because he believes his large nose makes him ugly. I sat mesmerized by this wonderful actor’s interpretation of the role and have rarely seen anyone his equal.
Jose Ferrer won the Academy Award for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), Gerard Depardieu was nominated for his performance in the French remake of the film in 1990, and Steve Martin was astonishing in a modern-day remake entitled Roxanne (1987). Martin was the finest of the film Cyranos until this new one with Peter Dinklage.
I have now seen the greatest Cyrano I have ever experienced, film or stage, as Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage is Cyrano, a new musical version superbly directed by Joe Wright. Dinklage goes deeper into the character than any other actor I have ever seen. Trading the large nose for dwarfism gives the film greater power somehow, and Dinklage is nothing short of brilliant as the gentle, kind and loving Cyrano. Make no mistake, he is still a deadly man with a sword and proves this often through the film when challenged. While he is brave with the blade, he lacks the courage to tell his friend Roxanne (Haley Bennett) that he loves her. When she falls in love with Christian, a man lacking poetic talent, Cyrano offers his help and writes Roxanne the most spectacular love letters, which she commits to memory.
Dinklage captures deeper aspects to Cyrano than anyone ever has before, the longing, a virtual ache in his soul throughout the film, so much so that every time he lays eyes on Roxanne, we feel his pain. They are friends, perhaps best friends, and he is intoxicated with his feelings, barely able to contain them. She is of course oblivious, thinking all the while Christian is writing these testaments of love to her. The heartbreak in his eyes makes him the most tragic of all the greats to have portrayed the role, finding depth and beauty others did not. And as I said, what he lacks in height, he more than compensates with his lethal sword. He is deadly. He can easily defend himself from two, three, five opponents and come away the victor. Give this actor the Academy Award right now!
Haley Bennett is luminous as the luscious Roxanne, an absolute beauty with great intelligence as well but not sharp enough to recognize she and Cyrano are soul mates, old souls deeply in love. She falls for Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a handsome young man without a romantic bone in his body. To help him win Roxanne, Cyrano begins penning love letters to the lady, pouring out his own heart, and signing Christian’s name. That she memorizes them is only further wounding to the writer, as Cyrano watches her recite his words back to him with tears in his eyes, fully aware she is in love with the words and not Christian at all. Bennett is superb in the film; every man should be so lucky to fall in love or have a love like this from Roxanne.
Harrison portrays Christian as a big oaf of a man, decent enough, a good friend to Cyrano, but hardly able to hold Roxanne’s attention beyond the physical attraction?
Cyrano, on the other hand, could wax poetic about any number of seemingly mundane topics.
The musical genre adds another interesting twist to this version. Although not a trained singer, Dinklage’s low rumble of a voice is superbly used for the songs in the film, and Bennett is exquisite. Understand it is not so much that Dinklage can sing, but that he brings such obvious soul to each song. Everything just seems to work with this film. It feels fresh and original. The acting is breathtaking and captures the essence of what true love might be, going far beyond the “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme. It is mesmerizing from start to finish, sentimental and touching, without an ounce of insincerity. So rarely does this happen.
Beautifully designed, choreographed directed and best of all acted, the film can be described in a single word that also refers to Peter Dinklage.
Cyrano is a miracle.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.