'Cyrano' review: Peter Dinklage stars in a love story with humor, heartbreak

Dinklage is the definitive cinematic Cyrano.

Peter Dinklage sings! And if seeing this marvelous actor and "Game of Thrones" Emmy winner crooning his heart out is not enough to excite your curiosity about "Cyrano -- which opened in theaters to qualify for Oscars -- director Joe Wright has more delicious surprises in this musical version of the oft-told tale of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac."

Once defined and ridiculed for his oversized nose, Cyrano is now dismissed for his undersized body in the screenplay by Erica Schmidt, who is also Dinklage's wife. Schmidt reimagines Cyrano as a dwarf and a tour de force role for her husband who makes his bracingly brilliant best of it.

It's still 17th century Paris, and Cyrano is, as ever, the ultimate swordsman and poet who can do anything but win Roxanne (the radiant Haley Bennett), the beauty he has loved since childhood. Instead, the lady falls for Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) the dashing soldier who lacks the words to fire her heart.

Enter Cyrano, who provides Christian with the verbal resources to woo her. As Dinklage recently said in an interview, "It's exactly what we're doing today with online dating, where you're putting up a profile of yourself out there that is not necessarily true to who you are. We all pretend to be other people to varying degrees."

But it's what happens when the "pretend" falls away that gives the new film its emotional impact. The role won Jose Ferrer an Oscar for the 1950 film version, a nomination for Gerard Depardieu in 1990 and gave Steve Martin a chance to play it for laughs in 1987's "Roxanne."

Dinklage plays it for keeps in a unique and unforgettable portrayal that nails every nuance in the role. If his singing voice lacks the range of his costars (Bennett is a wonder), he finds the piercing heartache to bring the score by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner, known as The National, with lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser, to thrilling life. Shooting in Sicily during the pandemic, Wright again shows the skill with period films that shone so brightly in "Pride and Prejudice," "Atonement" and "Anna Karenina." But he outdoes himself with the sumptuous camerawork, costumes and production design in "Cyrano."

Still, nothing upstages the actors. Bennett is loveliness laced with the independent streak of a modern woman ("I'm nobody's pet, no one's wife, no one's woman"). Her first song, "Someone To Say," glimmers with an ideal of love that sees past a pleasing surface to find a soulful core.

The film's conventional elements -- Roxanne's pursuit by the villainous Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn) and the Duke's attempt to eliminate Christian -- can't dull the power of the battle scenes shot against the volcanic backdrop of Mount Etna. Wright approaches everything from the intimate balcony scene to the epic spill of war with a painter's eye for light and shading.

Still, at its peak, "Cyrano" is a love story brimming over with humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance. And Dinklage makes believers of us all. His Cyrano, convinced of his ugliness, calls himself a "freak." It's not Roxanne's poetic ideal he can't live up to, it's his. That's his tragedy.

Dinklage is the definitive cinematic Cyrano. He makes you ache for him and with him. As an actor, he has found the confidence to do less. His performance, one for the ages, does just what an honest telling of the Cyrano legend should do: celebrate the reality of love, not its illusion.