In an industry eager to throw filmmakers into director’s jail for the most meager of box-office shortfalls, Joe Wright’s career should have ended a decade ago. The British master of prestige pics made his mark on the period piece with his award-garnering Winston Churchill biopic The Darkest Hour (2017) and the Keira Knightley triptych of Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012). However, he has also helmed some of the most prominent financial and critical disasters in recent memory, including Pan (2015), a big-budget postmodern prequel to the story of the boy who never grew up starring Hugh Jackman as Captain Hook. Still even in misfires like Pan, the indie-minded action flick turned Amazon series Hanna (2011), and last year’s dumped-on-Netflix Amy Adams thriller The Woman in the Window, Wright has exhibited an unparalleled knack for working against the grain of genre convention. Though yet another iteration of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac may seem superfluous after Steve Martin’s Roxanne (1987) and Gerard Depardieu’s Oscar-nominated take on the titular hero in 1990’s French adaptation, Wright’s translation of the play into a hybrid of period piece and contemporary musical offers a worthy addition to the text’s cinematic legacy despite its flaws at the hands of its PC pandering.
In Wright’s update of the timeless tale of the large-schnozed soldier hoping to mediate his unrequited love for the lady Roxanne by ghost writing love letters for his Adonis of a colleague, the director swaps dwarfism for Cyrano’s ungainly nose through Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister) assuming the role. While the alterations could have come off as stunt casting, Dinklage endows Cyrano with steely reserve and comportment that make him a much more tragic figure than the play’s seriocomic legacy suggests. As Roxanne, Wright’s real-life romantic partner Haley Bennett offers a sense of status anxiety and an airy desire for independence, underscoring that good standing within the hierarchy of French nobility governs each characters’ every decision. At its core, Cyrano has always been less a love story and more an interrogation of social performance and its role in inhibiting individual autonomy, a theme Wright’s film embraces through its ingenious use of theatre as both a motif and aesthetic sensibility with its numerous musical numbers by the indie band The National and a playlike set that highlights the claustrophobia of its French Renaissance world.
Unfortunately, Wright often undercuts his film’s strengths by posturing for contemporary relevance. As impressive as Dinklage is, his Cyrano’s highly inventive fight choreography often aligns the character with the supercrip identity so common in pop-culture representations of disability that position those belonging to the community as superior specimens whose virtue and achievements are models for the able-bodied world. More absurd is the film’s blindspot in casting African-American actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the aptly named Christian, the third side of the narrative’s romantic triangle. Cyrano clearly tries to flex its colorblind cred and post-Summer 2020 subtext despite its period setting through constructing Christian as a populist martyr falling victim to the designs of the jealous nobleman de Guiche (a customarily impeccable Ben Mendelsohn). Yet, Harrison Jr.’s impressive work aside, Wright & Company clearly overlooked that their casting decision turned a classic 19th century text with evergreen statements about tolerance and diversity into a story that condones a wealthy white noble speaking for an inarticulate black man whose only attribute is his physical prowess. The stylistic and musical vision Wright brings to Cyrano justifies its existence, but a better understanding of why classic texts earned their designation in the first place could have made it as substantial and relevant as it clearly hopes it is.
On disc and available for digital rental.