The deeply strange tragi-romantic farce of Cyrano de Bergerac has been adapted for the movies many times, with famous versions starring Gérard Depardieu and Steve Martin. Now it is revived again as a musical, with screenwriter Erica Schmidt adapting her hit stage version of Edmond Rostand’s 1897’s play, and Joe Wright directing. As in the stage show, this stars Schmidt’s husband Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister from TV’s Game of Thrones), who brings a piercing commitment to the role and he is persuasive in the way that the likes of Depardieu and Martin weren’t. Dinklage takes the title role: the poet, soldier and poignantly insecure would-be lover, finessing the original by showing that the problem is society’s attitude to Cyrano’s restricted height, rather than the traditional silly and unfunnily phallic big nose. This Cyrano has a normal-sized schnoz and perhaps simply not having the tiresome fake prosthesis makes his performance more available and winning.
It is set in 17th-century Paris, although Wright cheekily shows a theatre with an electric follow-spot light. France is at war with Spain, and Cyrano is the hot-headed soldier and swordsman (the script makes a lairy allusion to Cyrano’s, ahem, endowment) who is hopelessly in love with Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a friend since childhood, but too self-conscious about his appearance to say anything. She is being courted by the wealthy, cruel and charmless Duc de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), but Roxanne falls head-over-heels for Cyrano’s fellow officer Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr) who is sweet-natured but hopelessly tongue-tied. So poor, self-effacing Cyrano, wanting nothing more than for his beloved to be happy, offers to ghostwrite Christian’s passionately eloquent love letters and coach him in the language of love.
Interestingly, having been bowled over by Christian’s supposed love-rhetoric with all its extravagance, she teasingly tells Cyrano that his own language is “coded”, and there’s something here for literary theorists about Christian and Cyrano standing respectively for high-flown language and base reality. The result is not exactly the screwball comedy you might expect, but something slower and more solemn, which in its final act decelerates further into the heart-wrenching misery which has – for me bafflingly – made the Cyrano myth perennially popular and may yet make this a success to rival the film version of Les Misérables. Dinklage always holds the screen with his natural charisma.
• Cyrano is released on 25 February in cinemas.