Monday, February 28, 2022

Cyrano is an endearingly unabashedly romantic, if still flawed, musical


Cyrano makes it apparent early on whether or not this romantic musical will be for you. As Roxanne (Hayley Bennett) is riding in a carriage on her way to an unexciting date, she locks eyes with Christian de Neuvillette (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). In that moment, the two of them fall in love immediately even without knowing each other's names. If that sounds ridiculous or like too much of a leap, that's understandable and Cyrano is simply not going to be your cup of tea. If that sounds like just your kind of sweeping romantic storytelling, though, then the ensuing film director Joe Wright is going to strike your fancy and then some.

Based on the stage musical of the same name by Erica Schmidt (who also writes this film's screenplay), as well as the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, the titular character of Cyrano (played by Peter Dinklage) is a man of considerable courage in battle or on a stage who has difficulty confessing his longstanding feelings of romantic affection for Roxanne. He's convinced that his physical attributes, here represented by his height rather than the size of his nose as in the original 1897 play, will always keep him at arm's length from Roxanne.

His struggles to convey his heart are only exacerbated when he learns that she's fallen in love with Neuvillette, whose just been recruited as a soldier in Bergerac's regiment. As the two interact, they come up with a plan where by Bergerac will write love letters that the tongue-tied Neuvillette will claim as his own. An act of duplicity in the name of love, the whole charade becomes increasingly difficult for the two men to keep up even before the prospect of a war rears its ugly head.

The last few Joe Wright films have struggled to establish their own identity apart from the films they were emulating. Pan was just a woefully misguided attempt to make a live-action Disney cartoon remake without any Disney cartoon to use as creative inspiration. Darkest Hour was a paint-by-numbers biopic. The Woman in the Window was a Hitchcock pastiche lacking in thrills. Part of the entertainment in Cyrano, though, comes from seeing Wright do something that doesn't feel like it's riding the coattails of past movies. Even considering how The Greatest Showman and La La Land ushered in a new age of big-screen musicals, nobody out there was demanding a new musical take on Cyrano de Bergerac or even a straightforward adaptation of this material.

That's not meant to be a complaint, though. On the contrary, emerging as something chasing its own creative beats rather than adhering to what it believes audiences want is what makes Cyrano an unexpectedly charming endeavor. Part of that charm also comes from Schmidt's willingness to embrace entertainment rather than chasing a conventionally cohesive tone. Early on, the story alternates between rap battles in a 19th-century playhouse to Cyrano setting enemy assassins on fire and then back to poignant romance all in the span of just a handful of scenes. Disjointed? Maybe. But I love when movies are free-wheeling and going wherever they please, especially when it's clear there's palpable interest in the various places it takes the audience.

Best of all, this is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. The old-school romantic inclinations of our lead characters, who burst into pronounced expressions of love-soaked affection at the drop of a hat, are delivered with nary a snarky quip or a self-referential line in sight. This is a movie confident in its dedication to melodramatic love, rather than something dripping with self-consciousness. It's also a hoot how Cyrano keeps finding new ways to visually represent sensuality. The omnipresence of romance in these people' lives is reflected in how everything from baking bread to even Roxanne reading a letter on her bed can be an opportunity for sexual imagery to dominate the frame. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but in the case of Cyrano, so much of what's on-screen is creatively rendered as a sexual metaphor. 

Unfortunately, the visuals of Cyrano do connect to the biggest shortcoming of the movie: its camerawork. If there was ever a 2022 feature crying out to be filmed on 35mm film, it's this one. Something so rooted in classical musical cinema is primed and ready to be captured on the same kind of cameras used by MGM musicals in the 1950s. By contrast, the digital cameras used here end up making certain scenes look murkier than they should and exacerbate flaws in pieces of green-screen work. Meanwhile, Joe Wright's work behind the camera in executing the musical numbers can't help but feel like it needed a little more imagination and energy, especially when compared to the camerawork in recent live-action musicals like West Side Story and Tick...Tick...Boom! Even without the high bar set by those two films, some of Cyrano's grander tunes needed framing as passionate and unique as the romantic feelings of its in-movie characters.

Wright and cinematographer Seam McGarvey fare significantly better in their camerawork whenever it comes to more intimate musical numbers, such as the highlight of all of Cyrano, "Wherever I Fall." The restrained and intimate nature of the camera here allows the complex thoughts of the frightened and tormented soldier singers to be properly felt. You feel like you're in the foxhole with them, grappling with mortality but also the emotions and human connections that made this life worth living. It's a song that evokes the same thematically rich material as the Kingston Trio ditty "Long Black Rifle", but the camerawork here makes those words land with a unique impact.

Capturing those sorts of emotions with vigor is what makes Cyrano work even with its flaws, like the underwhelming digital camerawork  or certain repetitive song lyrics. It's a gusto production where songs can break out at anytime, where performers like Peter Dinklage and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are knocking you on your feet (who knew Harrison Jr. could sing this well in addition to his other talents?), and where Joe Wright has come alive as a filmmaker once again. It'll understandably be too much disjointed musical madness for some, but Cyrano hit my sweet spot in terms of its conviction to romance and being its own poignant creation.

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