Director: Joe Wright (USA). Year of Release: 2021
France, the middle of the 17th Century. Roxanne is poor, but she’s Hollywood poor which means that she lives in a mansion and has a maid. But she is behind with her rent as her landlord reminds her (do landlords visit big mansions to tell people about their rent arrears? Do mansions have landlords?) There may be a way out of her poverty. Duke de Guiche fancies her and he’s second in line to the king or something. Trouble is, he’s also repulsive.
Still, Roxanne goes with de Guiche to the theatre as she can’t afford her own ticket. The lead actor is pompous, and is surrounded by half a dozen people dressed as sheep for some reason. A lone voice heckles. Cyrano (for it is he) then gets on stage, forces the actor to retreat, then gets someone else to challenge him to a duel before killing him and tells the restless audience that the play is cancelled. He throws the theatre owner a bag of money to pay for the refunds.
Now it is pretty audacious to start a film with someone storming a stage demanding that the play should either be better quality or we should all just go home now. Especially if this is all you have on offer. Because, ladies and gentlemen, although Peter Dinklage is superb throughout, as a film, as a musical, as an evening out, Cyrano is just not very good.
I’ll spare you most of the plot after all as you know it already. This is Cyrano de Bergerac, the story of an alcoholic detective in Jersey. No, that was a different one, but you know this one as well. Disfigured man doesn’t believe that he looks good enough for a woman to love him, so he writes love letters to help someone else woo her.
The film takes the sensible step of making Cyrano’s disfigurement dwarfism rather than a large nose, as in real life few people are excluded because of their nose size. It all looks promising, and, I can’t say this often enough, Peter Dinklage is brilliant, looking both mournful and charismatic to order. But it’s now time to address the elephant in the room. Cyrano is a musical. Now that’s not a bad thing of itself – I do like a good musical. But this is most definitely not a good musical.
You can sense the problem in the very first song, where Roxanne basically strings a load of clichés together in a parody of emotion. Which is also fine – who listens to the lyrics anyway? But the music is so bland, so Middle of the Road, so forgettable, that you automatically try to close your ears. Even after the actors have finished singing the musical refrain often lingers in the background as if to taunt us.
This means that although the plot is interesting and the scenery is breathtaking (respect to Sicily for looking so good), every so often we get drawn out of our involvement to listen to some crappy music with even crappier words. This is bewildering as, while he is doing the real acting stuff, Dinklage is incredibly articulate as Cyrano. And then he starts to sing utterly meaningless drivel.
This means that you care more than you should about minor details, such as when Roxanne hears that her lover’s voice has suddenly dropped an octave, but not that he is now speaking in the voice of someone she’s know since she was kid, who is from her village, so presumably shares her regional accent. I’m not sure if this is in the original, and was also a feature of earlier films with Gerard Depardieu and Steve Martin, but I was so involved with those films that I didn’t notice.
And – and this really may just be me – I can only hear people singing the name “Roxanne” so many times (and it happens a lot), without expecting them to go on to warn her not to put on the red light. This is the sort of inconsequential musing that goes through your head when a film is failing to engage you on any serious level.
I was recently doing research for an article I wrote about Cabaret, and a couple of people argued that the late 1960s / early 1970s heralded the end of the golden age of musicals. There is more than a grain of truth in this. It’s not that Hollywood entirely stopped making musicals. They just stopped being any good. Since the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the mid-1970s, I can only think of one film where you felt that someone had taken care to write good original songs.
Now my memory isn’t what it used to be, so there are probably other examples (mine is last year’s Annette by the way), but there is a definite trend to either concentrate on jukebox musicals where the performance is of differing quality (from Mamma Mia to Sunshine on Leith) but the music is old, or to pack films with unambitious bland music which seems to be pitched towards a timid focus group. Cyrano definitely belongs to this second category.
Some people don’t like musicals in principle because non-diagetic music is just not realistic. I don’t have a problem with this. I’m quite happy for the Sharks and the Jets to suddenly break into song and dance if those songs are written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The songs for Cyrano are written by a couple of members of the National, a band of whom I was vaguely aware, and I think we’ll keep this relationship vague.
Am I being snobby about this? Quite possibly. I am sure there are people out there who will love the music and I would recommend this film to them wholeheartedly. The trouble is that the music is such an essential part of the film that if you find it offensively bland, it is difficult to maintain the concentration to enjoy the rest of the film. Which is a shame as, did I mention it already?, Peter Dinklage is a superb actor who’s at the top of his game here.