For a dramatic work that was essentially focused on a deformed body part, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 romantic box office hit Cyrano de Bergerac has yielded some surprisingly resonant consequences. One of them took place during World War I, when young French women, who were allegedly inspired by the passionate letters between the play’s main character and the object of his hidden love, Roxane, made similar fiery notes to anonymous soldiers in the trenches.
The finer points of the play’s love triangle, in which Cyrano uses his handsome fellow officer Christian as a front for his feelings, and Roxane’s foolishness to fall for a combination of one man’s eloquence and the other’s physical allure, were undoubtedly a nuance too far for this godmothers, or godmothers, who were turning their sentimental longing into patriotic duty. But they clearly absorbed the lesson of Rostand’s work: that nothing was more criminal than allowing the “truth of feeling” to remain unexpressed.
This moral is also the guideline of the new music film Cyrano, directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Reconciliation), written by Erica Schmidt and played in the title role Peter Dinklage, known worldwide for his multicolored performances as the sweet malicious Tyrion in Game of Thrones.
Schmidt based the screenplay on her own stage version of the play, which completely abandoned the comic arrogance for which Cyrano is the best known. “I wanted to see what it would be like if Cyrano did not have the fake nose, but more than that, if he did not spend the play talking about his fake nose,” she says in a video call. “What if we left out what it was he did not love about himself, so you are left to wonder and make your own idea?”
The cast of Dinklage, with whom Schmidt is married, came later when she invited members of the rock group The National (which she “feverishly pursued” to make the music) to their home for a reading of her rewriting.
“Peter said, ‘Maybe I can read it?’ “Now that your partner is a massive celebrity that everyone knows, there’s a way it’s all about him, so I have to be honest and say I was a little bit resistant,” she says.
“But by the time he read it, it was clear that he was absolutely perfect for it. So much about Peter’s own character was so similar: his razor-sharp intellect, his wit, his sense of humor. ” Dinklage’s dwarfism was hardly considered. “I wanted to suggest that if it was Peter’s height that you saw as a direct guarantee for the nose, it was what you was seeing. We deliberately never said anything after reference [his] size. And I think that was part of what he was attracted to. “
In turn, Dinklage confesses that he “incorporated” himself into the role. “It was not written for me at all,” he said in a separate call. “But I thought getting rid of the nose was a real step forward for the story. Because when you see an attractive actor with a fake nose, you know it’s a fake nose, it’s inherently theatrical. For someone like me, who is physically unique, I would look at it and think, ‘What is he complaining about? His nose is not that big! ‘
“It seemed as if Rostand was trying to get to something deeper than what the ‘nose’ tells us. What is that universal feeling of being unworthy of someone you love, and unworthy of being loved, and hiding from it. And it is something we can all identify with, not just anyone who is physically different. ”
It was the complexity of Cyrano’s character that attracted Dinklage the most to the role. “For actors, the more complicated the role, the better. And Cyrano is quite a contradiction. He has such bravado, he really commands the room, he is wonderful with his men and a confident warrior. But in the face of love, his knees begin to nod. And he does not know how to convince himself of his own worth. ”
Did he use Tyrion, another well-known dexterous verbal craftsman, in his reading of the role? “Both are witty characters. But Tyrion is very confident when it comes to the partners he is attracted to. He has no problem speaking his mind, and is quite blunt to get what he wants. “
The character Cyrano wants, Roxanne, eagerly portrayed by Haley Bennett, is another that has been reconfigured in Schmidt’s version of the story. “I wanted her to have more agency than in the original,” she says. “In the end, when she finds out that she has been lied to and deceived for 15 years, she really does not say anything. I thought, ‘What if she was angry? What about the life she could have had? I wanted her to be messy and fight. ”
“She’s almost punk rock, not what we think of as punk rock, but for the 1600s,” Dinklage adds. “That’s one of the reasons Cyrano likes her.”
Wright gives the film a distinctive form and begins his story with fights and banquets in the lush Sicilian baroque village of Noto (dances are invented by the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), and it ends in the hostile and sparse landscape of Mount Etna, where the love triangle turns into a philosophical debate about the nature of love. This is where The National’s longing ballads are at their most effective, with little style delivered by Dinklage’s expressive baritone voice, sung rather than reverberated during filming. “You want to hear the heavy breathing and the fatigue,” says Dinklage about the benefits of singing on set. “I would not be able to do [otherwise] without cracking. ”
Schmidt says the change of pace was deliberate. “[At the end] I made the dialogue very, very frugal, I reduced the cast from 40 to 10, and really focused on the intimacy of the relationships. Roxanne’s journey is very simple. She wants this impossible dream to fall in love at first sight, with a mind as well as a face and body. She chooses to believe that dreaming is possible, but it does not make her stupid, or naive. I love her. ”
She adds that the story of a romance through letters has an extra meaning in today’s culture, compared to that of a few decades ago. “We are so obsessed with offering ‘the best possible version of ourselves’ through social media, selfies, dating apps. When you compile a version of yourself that exists online, it’s a true version, but it’s also a lie. Cyrano and Christian create this lie – but it is also true that they both love Roxanne. ”
I ask Dinklage or the release of Cyrano comes so soon after Steven Spielberg’s west side story, another fable of love frustrated by perceptions of otherness, is a coincidence. “This is a fascinating time in which we live, especially in America, which feels like a failed experiment,” he replies. “But in the arts, from our corner of the sandbox, it’s our responsibility to advance the needle forward to create a more open-minded, race-diverse, creatively fulfilling place.”
And the tragedy of Cyrano, entangled in 17th-century aversion and prejudice, can it play its part? “It is time that we open the box. Who can say what a romantic leader should be? They have been beautiful white people for far too long. A love story is not just the domain of the beautiful. It is part of all of our lives, and it affects us all differently. ”
In British cinemas from 14 January and American cinemas from 28 January