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'Cyrano' infuses an oft-told tale with disarming sincerity and operatic passion

Justin Chang reviews the latest version of the Cyrano de Bergerac which is a musical and stars Peter Dinklage.

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Other segments from the episode on February 25, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 25, 2022: Interview with David Blight; Obituary for Paul Farmer; review of film 'Cyrano.'

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The famous story of Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted for the screen many times since the play was first staged in 1897. The latest film version, called "Cyrano," is a musical starring Peter Dinklage in the title role. It's directed by Joe Wright whose other films include "Pride And Prejudice" and "Atonement." "Cyrano" opens in theaters this week. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A lot of great actors have played Cyrano de Bergerac over the years, including Jose Ferrer, Christopher Plummer, Gerard Depardieu, Kevin Kline and Steve Martin, if you count - and why not? - the 1987 modern-day comedy "Roxanne," the latest to join their distinguished company is Peter Dinklage, and he's the rare actor not to wear a fake nose for the role. Here, it's not a big schnoz but rather Cyrano's diminutive stature that makes him think he's unworthy of Roxanne, the woman he loves, played by Haley Bennett. That's not the only major departure from Edmond Rostand's tragicomic 1897 play. This solid and sometimes enchanting movie, simply titled "Cyrano," was adapted by Erica Schmidt from her 2019 stage musical, with a score and songs by members of the band The National. Their sweet, somber melodies bring a decidedly modern edge to the story, which takes place sometime between the 17th and 18th centuries. While Cyrano de Bergerac usually unfolds in Paris, the movie, shot mostly in Sicily, doesn't specify an exact location.

Apart from those changes, it's the same story. Cyrano, a respected soldier in the king's army, is renowned and feared for his superb swordsmanship and his scathing wit, both of which have made him powerful enemies like Count de Guiche, played by a scowling Ben Mendelsohn. Cyrano is also deeply in love with Roxanne, a longtime friend who admires his confrontational spirit and his way with words. But Roxanne has fallen for Christian, a dashing young soldier, played by a very good Kelvin Harrison Jr., who's just joined Cyrano's regiment. Cyrano takes on the role of a go-between and even goes so far as to write impossibly eloquent love letters to Roxanne, passing them off as Christian's. At the climax of this farcical romantic triangle, Roxanne stands at her bedroom window, while the hopelessly inarticulate Christian tries to woo her with some much-needed prodding from Cyrano, lurking in the shadows. At a certain point, Cyrano takes over, and he gives full voice to his passionate feelings in this lovely duet between him and a still-unsuspecting Roxanne.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CYRANO")

HALEY BENNETT: (As Roxanne, singing) Your letters to me are like music.

PETER DINKLAGE: (As Cyrano de Bergerac, singing) They're just a mask in a lonely coward's game.

BENNETT: (As Roxanne, singing) What is it you're so afraid of losing?

DINKLAGE: (As Cyrano de Bergerac, singing) I might lose everything if I lose the pain.

HALEY BENNETT AND PETER DINKLAGE: (As Roxanne and Cyrano de Bergerac, singing) 'Cause every time I see you I am overcome. It'd make you laugh to think someone like me could keep someone like you. Look what I've become.

CHANG: Fun fact, Peter Dinklage and screenwriter Erica Schmidt are a couple, as are Haley Bennett and the film's director, Joe Wright. Think of it as a romantic behind-the-scenes footnote to a movie that's unabashedly romantic in spirit. Wright's filmmaking has a pleasing, old-fashioned, sumptuousness, courtesy of production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designers Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran, who are Oscar-nominated for their dazzling work here. And as always, Wright controls the camera with fluid grace, letting us see the actors and dancers moving through space with none of the busy cutting you get in so many contemporary movie musicals.

Bennett is a trained singer, and she delivers the movie's strongest musical performance. Her Roxanne really comes to emotional life when she's called on to sing. Dinklage has musical experience, too. He was the frontman of a '90s punk band called Whizzy, and he expresses Cyrano's every longing with a deep, soulful baritone. He's an inspired choice for the role, like Tyrion Lannister, whom Dinklage played to perfection on "Game Of Thrones." Cyrano is always the smartest person in the room, easy to underestimate, but hard to defeat in a battle of wits or weapons. But Dinklage shows you the deep ache at Cyrano's core and makes you feel the sting of his unrequited love. Some purists may miss that big nose, but there's something about the lack of prosthetic enhancements that makes Dinklage's performance all the more poignant. What you see on screen is all him, nothing more and nothing less.

That disarming sincerity applies to the movie as a whole. It's not always the most graceful retelling of this oft-told tale, but it's hard not to admire Wright's conviction and sometimes his crazy audacity. Only a truly committed director would have opted to shoot a climactic battle scene at 16,000 feet above sea level on the side of Mount Etna, a live volcano. It's a showy flourish, for sure, but also a fitting one for a story of such grand operatic passion.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed "Cyrano" starring Peter Dinklage.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Stanislavski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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