Why Is ‘Cyrano’ Still So Potent? Ask Anyone Who’s Loved at All.
Yet the pathos remain. “Roxanne” is, in many ways, a film about loneliness. C.D. is a man accustomed to entertaining himself, via the little songs he sings and comic sequences he performs, often for no one else, while going about his day. And unsurprisingly, Martin revised the story to give it a happy ending, a choice indicative not only of the era, but also of the pivot in genre. It’s a romantic comedy now, and few great romantic comedies end with two-thirds of a love triangle dead. Other adaptations follow the lead of “Roxanne,” like the gender-swapped “Truth About Cats and Dogs” or the teen-centered “Whatever It Takes” and “The Half of It — so, ironically, the 2021 version is surprising for following Rostand’s original so closely.
In the new “Cyrano,” the primary shift involved revising the text for its star, Peter Dinklage — a man not lengthy in nose, but short in height. (Roxanne, played by Haley Bennett, is also, thankfully, changed from a blood relative to his “oldest friend.”) And it is modified to accommodate the new songs, which seem shoehorned in during the early sections but take flight once the letter writing begins. The director, Joe Wright, makes a heart-rending three-person song out of the love triangle, visualizing their harmonizing with split screens, tantalizing imagery and barely subdued eroticism.
In its best moments, “Cyrano” does what other recent film musicals like “In the Heights” and “West Side Story” do: It reminds us that singing can make a character (and an actor) more vulnerable, tapping into an openness and emotion that beautifully suits this particular story of romantic longing. It also suits the theatricality of Wright’s style, a quality sometimes subtextual (see, for example, his “Atonement”) and sometimes made text (as in his “Anna Karenina”), while accommodating the ornate feel of the contemporary costume drama.
So why is this story, now more than a century old, still so poignant and affecting? The answer may lie in one of the scenes featured in all three films, in which Cyrano first believes Roxanne is meeting him to confess her love, only to discover that her affection is for Christian. The devastation that falls across Dinklage’s face is like a dagger to the heart — and familiar to just about anyone who’s lived and loved for any time at all. Roger Ebert pinpointed it, writing in his “Roxanne” review that the play “still strikes some kind of universal note, maybe because for all of us there is some attribute or appendage we secretly fear people will ridicule. Inside every adult is a second-grader still terrified of being laughed at.” And that may be the key to our identification with this character. He’s the kind of person we all like to imagine ourselves to be — confident, brave and witty — and the kind of person we know we are — sensitive, tentative and delicate.