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'Cyrano' may be nice, but it's not transcendent

The new movie Cyrano is just the latest re-telling of the famous story of a man with a long nose. It stars Peter Dinklage, has a somewhat racially mixed cast and is a musical. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, the movie has everything but the spark of genius.

French playwright Edmond Rostand wrote the original Cyrano de Bergerac in 1897. Jose Ferrer won an Oscar for playing Cyrano in 1951; French actor Gerard Depardieu played Cyrano in 1990. In 1987, Steve Martin played Cyrano as a fire chief in a film named Roxanne, for the female lead. There’s no lack of Cyranos in the movies. In fact, in 1923, Italian director Augusto Genina made a silent Cyrano de Bergerac with hand-colored sequences. It may be the most touching production of the story.

In all of them, Cyrano profoundly loves Roxanne, but believes his enormous nose makes him ineligible for love. He’s a great swordsman and a magnificent poetic, witty talker, but he lives his life over-compensating for his painful sense of himself. He finally writes gorgeous love letters to Roxanne for Christian, a hunk with no feeling for poetry, and based on those letters Roxanne falls in love with Christian, which of course deepens Cyrano’s sadness and self-loathing. It’s a story made for any age in which people feel vulnerable and inferior, for whatever reasons — and that’s so far every period in human life.

But this Cyrano comes with a twist. The script was written by Erica Schmidt, who happens to be married to the actor Peter Dinklage. He’s known for The Station Agent and Game of Thrones, and for being quite short. So, for the first time, the character of Cyrano is played by someone who really does have an unusual physical characteristic. It works well. Dinklage brings great energy and feeling to the role, and viewers know that unlike all those actors with prosthetic noses, Dinklage brings a touching authenticity to the film.

Cyrano is also a musical. Cyrano, Roxanne and Christian sing of love’s ecstasy and pain — in combinations of solos, duets and trios. Director Joe Wright even brings in dancing royal guardsmen, and it’s all clever and pleasant. But.

At the heart of the story of Cyrano is language. Roxanne falls in love with words she believes are Christian’s, and only at the end does she learn to great sorrow that it is really Cyrano she has loved all her life. And neither the song lyrics nor the letters nor the dialogue have the depth of the language of the original play, where Cyrano goes off on long riffs of self-mockery, and mockery of enemies, full of ingenious wordplay and simultaneous insight into himself and others. It’s a marvel to hear him spin off these tough-minded explosions of verbal dazzle.

Cyrano’s an okay film. The story of Cyrano’s deep yearning, pain and feeling of inferiority is here, and the sight of him holding in his feelings for his entire adult life breaks your heart. Peter Dinklage carries this burden well.

Joe Wright also has a fine cinematic eye. Roxanne is often surrounded by fatuous people with garish, slathered-on makeup. The grotesque design grows exaggerated in a theater sequence where Roxanne incorporates gently all the pinks, yellows and reds that make other characters seem garish, foolish and useless.

And then Cyrano makes his first appearance and dispatches a dreary actor with a rhyme and a belch.

But the thrill of language is absent. When Christian speaks or writes Cyrano’s words, the meaning is there, but not the sense that language can be magical, that it can cause someone to fall in love forever. Cyrano’s speech in the original is full of mythic and Biblical allusions; you stretch to catch the meaning, but it’s not hard and when you do, the reward of understanding the richness of the moment goes deep and satisfying. The film Cyrano may be nice, but it’s not transcendent.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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