Sometimes you have the right actor in the right part, but the wrong movie. Such is the case with “Cyrano,” Joe Wright’s handsome musical version of Edmond Rostand’s 19th-century play “Cyrano de Bergerac” (which has frequently been adapted for film; my favorite version being the 1987 Steve Martin comedy “Roxanne”). It’s a beautiful story of love and language, in which a poet/soldier (here played by Peter Dinklage) who believes himself to be deformed cannot tell the woman he loves, Roxanne (Haley Bennett), what he feels; instead, he serves as scriptwriter for a handsome yet inarticulate fellow soldier, Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Roxanne falls hard for Christian’s romantic words, not realizing that she truly loves their writer.
Wright’s version, set in late-17th-century Italy, is exactly what you’d expect from the director of 2012’s “Anna Karenina”: It’s crowded and whirling and wildly over-the-top theatrical, to the extent that you almost need to go lie down after it’s over. (Then again, overstimulation is a welcome new sensation these days.) Wright can’t just show us bakers at their work, he has to have them performing a Busby-Berkeley-ish ballet; he can’t just show us a letter being sealed, but zooms in dramatically on the dripping wax like it’s blood in a horror movie.
None of this muchness is really the problem; where this “Cyrano” falters is in the musical adaptation, which is simply not enough. It’s not at all a bad idea to make a “Cyrano” musical — song being, after all, an exalted form of language — but the songs need to be rich and glorious. Here, they’re just flat; the rhymes seem plain, the emotions small, the singing voices tight and limited. “Cyrano” should soar when the music begins; instead, it droops.
Pity, because casting Dinklage (“The Station Agent,” “Game of Thrones”) as the title character is an inspired choice. (It’s not an entirely random one: Dinklage is married to “Cyrano” screenwriter Erica Schmidt, and played the role in the stage production on which this film is based.) Dinklage isn’t a strong singer, but it doesn’t matter a whit: his swaggering but vulnerable Cyrano, reveling in words but aching with love, will break your heart. Watch him in one tiny moment, where Cyrano briefly thinks Roxanne has just called him beautiful; his face lights up like the sun, until he realizes the truth and darkness falls. Seeing him in close-up is an acting master class; you wish the film could have served him better, but he nonetheless makes it shine.