Cyrano (2021)

An absolutely gorgeous film that is wasting away without an audience. Somehow, the studio has managed to botch the release of this film, and instead of having a solid adult hit, they have a shiny disappointment that someone should lose a job over.  “Cyrano” is a musical update of a classic tale with a variation on the main character that is reasonable and allows an actor who might otherwise never have had the opportunity, to take on a great role.

The film is based on a stage musical by Erica Schmidt, who is the screenwriter for this film. I found some reviews of this Off-Broadway version of the musical, but I did not see any information about it’s success other than it was nominated for some stage awards. The one thing that is noteworthy is that the star has been transferred to the film, so we get the chance to see Peter Dinklage in a role that he originated.  None of the other stage actors mentioned in the New York reviews, made it into the film, but Haley Bennett , supposedly did play the part on stage, and the rest of the film casting is quite excellent. The parts all require some ability to sing and most of the cast acquit themselves admirably. Dinklage as Cyrano performs the songs in a low register and narrow range, much of his singing reminded me of Rex Harrison talk singing in “My Fair Lady“. He is effective but it is not the musical moments that make him shine in the part. 

For most people familiar with the play, Cyrano de Bergerac, it is the language of the poetry that is memorable and makes us care about the character. That largely survives with one disappointing exception. The duel that contains Cyrano’s witticisms about his opponent and even himself is lost in a musical presentation that surprisingly diminishes the moment instead of enhancing it. The duel itself is effectively staged and the resolution is dramatic and gives Cyrano a bit more cryptic personality, although he does quickly return to the arrogance that he started off with.  Dinklage is affecting in the dramatic moments and his winsome longing for Roxanne is best seen in the moments leading up to her request that he befriend Christian and protect him, you see he thought briefly she might truly have seen that he was in love with her and she returned the favor, but the false assumption comes crashing down on his face and it is a moment of sublime performance from our lead. 

Set in France, but largely filmed in ancient towns in Sicily, the environment feels completely appropriate for a time period before the Revolution. The production design is detailed without being overly opulent, but there are several elaborate scenes that will take your breath away. I was particularly impressed with the opening sequence set in a theater, with a rowdy crowd, a claustrophobic stage, and authentic costuming and make up for all the extras. There are several dance moments in the movie that are also elaborately staged. I have written before about the ability of Director Joe Wright to manage complex sequences of movement in dance, he did it beautifully in “Pride and Prejudice” and it is also true in this film.  The choreography contains a lot of arm movement that feels like an elaborate pantomime, and I was more distracted by that than intrigued. Because such a style was repeated a couple of times in the course of the film, it also felt less distinctive and more like a crutch.

 Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn make up the rest of the cast as Roxanne, Christian and De Guiche respectively. Of the musical sequences they each get, I was surprised that Mendelson’s was the most effective, but that may be because it focuses entirely on his character in that moment. The best number in the film is “Wherever I Fall” which is performed by supporting players in the battle sequence near the end of the film. It was quite dramatic and I noticed that Glen Hansard from “The Commitments” and “Once” was the lead guard performing the number. I find it interesting that unnamed characters get the most effective moment in the film, but it is a tribute to the integrity of the story that no effort was made to force Christian and Cyrano into the musical aspect of the scene. 

This film opened in Los Angeles for an Academy Award qualifying run, but has not been widely available until the end of February. The only nominations it has received are for the costumes, for which the acknowledgement seems deserved. The absence of Dinklage from the nominees seems to be a glaring error in retrospect. Once again, Joe Wright might also have been deserving of some attention, but if Denis Villeneuve was going to be ignored, than this oversite is not a surprise.  The film is available for streaming, but you shold make an effort so see it in a theater, you will be taken by it’s beauty and the shared experience of the film with an audience, will make it more poignant. 

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

When this film first came out, it was well before I’d begun blogging. So this has not appeared on my site before, a circumstance that I am happy to rectify today. This version of “Pride and Prejudice” starred Kiera Knightly, a rising young star who was blessed with talent and an aphorism that is incredibly sexist, but well remembered by me from my early years reading other people’s blog pages and comments, “The sexiest Tomboy, Beanpole, on the planet.” She plays one of literatures early feminist icons, Elizabeth Bennett, the headstrong and willful woman who will not “settle” for a marriage of convivence.  Her romantic counterpart is the dour Mr. Darcy, who’s demeanor hides a decent man with a soulful desire for love, but one that must be contained by the circumstances of the time and the class to which he was born. 


My youngest daughter is a Jane Austen fanatic, and her sister was a fan as well, so when we saw this film in 2005, both of them were in high school and the perfect age for being enamored of the British literature as a result of English classes they were taking. The whole family enjoyed this film and over the years it was a regular spin on the DVD player. It has however been a decade or so since I have seen the movie, and this was the first time since 2005 that I saw it on a theater screen rather than at home. The experience was revelatory. This film is beautifully constructed as a story adaption and it is shot in a manner that displays the kinds of directorial touches that people admire in the best film makers. Joe Wright made a transition from directing television program in Great Britain to making films with this project. It is truly a showpiece for his skills and artistry.


The best examples to show the creativity and eye that made this film are the ball sequences. In addition to showing a complex choregraphed dance routine, the camera follows our characters through the throng and the focus moves in and out on key figures at well placed moments. This is not a result of editing but of camera movement and placement and it was so much more noticeable on the big screen than the numerous times I’d seen the same sequences on a television. There are also examples of the same eye for a beautiful image in some of the lush countryside shots. Elizabeth walking back from Pemberley after accidentally meeting with Mr. Darcy is somewhat reminiscent of the Julie Andres helicopter shot at the start of “The Sound of Music”, the camera work from an aerial perspective is clever but not quite as flashy as it was in the musical.  The walk and talk sequence at the Bingley’s leased home when Elizabeth is escorted around the atrium room by Bingley’s sister while the two of them verbally joust with Mr. Darcy is also a nice flourish that is assured without being ostentatious. 


The cast of this movie is incredibly talented and effectively convey the attitudes of their characters and the story perspective that Austen set up. Mr. Collins is not an evil presence but he is feckless and uninteresting to Lizzie. The rest of the family sees this except Mrs. Bennett who is primarily interested in securing a reliable marriage for Lizzie. Tom Hollander is an average man in looks compared to the actors playing Wickham and Darcy. His mild deliver of his lines is completely appropriate and his obsequious attempts at impressing his benefactor Lady Katherine are very amusing. The two most valuable players however are Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as his wife. She provides the desperate facial expressions and shrill worrying voice that make Mrs. Bennett a somewhat comical figure. Sutherland, who has never been nominated by the Academy, although he has received an honorary Oscar, plays Lizzie’s father with the bemused tolerance of a loving husband and the patient but overwhelmed father of five daughters. Watch the scene where Elizabeth explains to her Father that she really does love Darcy, Sutherland’s performance is primarily reacting and his non-verbals in the moment are superb. 

Knightley and her Darcy, Matthew Macfadyen, seem appropriately matched. She is bright and forceful where he is all tense reserve and disdainful looks. They manage the language of the script well and the nuance that they bring to the hesitations and cadence of the deliveries feel romantic in an early 19th Century manner. I know that Colin Firth is a favorite Mr. Darcy among those who love this material, but I thought Macfadyen was a less conventional choice with a bearing that works for the story as it is being told here.Looking back on the Academy Awards for the year 2005, the five films that were nominated, in retrospect seem to be lesser efforts in comparison to this film and some others I could name from that year. Certainly it is a matter of taste and I know that fashion plays a part in the choices that get made. It’s unfortunate that the “tea on the lawn” fashion of film making had fallen out of favor to be replaced by social commentary films that have dominated the awards ever since. I think when it comes to artistry, Wright and his terrific cast stand the test of time, and I would happily repeat a theater screening of this movie anytime. 

Darkest Hour

Viscount Halifax: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

 

With all due deference to screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has crafted a solid narrative around the early days of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, much of the success of this film must go to another writer. That author is the central character of this film and perhaps the most important historical figure of the last century. The high points of this film all center around addresses that he made to Parliament,  the Nation, or to an inner circle of confidants and political rivals. As a Speech instructor, it is understandable then how I can be moved and consequently passionate about this movie.

There is something in the air this last year because this period of time has been the subject of several films over the last twelve months. “Dunkirk“, “Their Finest“, and “Churchill” have all been released in 2017. While I have not seen the later, the other two are strongly related to the events depicted in this film. One of my colleague on-line, a British citizen, schooled me in the attitudes toward patriotism in Great Britain. He suggests that it is acceptable to be proud of the history and heritage but not to draw attention to it as we Americans are wont to do. I can appreciate the cultural norm of humility, but being an American I do not feel bound by it. Great Britain stood up to one of the greatest evils in the history of the world, and for a time stood alone. The wherewithal to do so was inspired substantially by their wartime leader, a man that every free person should be willing to acknowledge. Churchill was far from perfect, he had a history of failures and his views on some subjects would be viewed very dimly by most people today. He was however, the right man at the right time and place.

Speaking of the right man, actor Gary Oldman, who has been a favorite of mine since the days of “Sid and Nancy”, rightly deserves the talk he is getting about winning an Academy Award. This is a intricate portrayal of a complex character, who was fiercely convinced of his correctness but was also cognizant of the circumstances he found himself in. Certainly the make-up artists that transformed his visage into Churchill will deserve a share of the credit, but the lion’s share goes to Oldman. He is able to summon doubt and conviction almost simultaneously in some scenes.If you have ever listened to Churchill’s wartime speeches, you will hear the grumbling and muttering and dry delivery. Oldman manages to duplicate the manner of those speeches but imbue them with enough theatricality to make them compelling to watch in a feature film. He stays true to Churchill’s demeanor but adds a spark of charisma to the settings.

 

Director Joe Wright has made very good films in the past (Atonement/Pride and Prejudice), but he has also stumbled at times (The Soloist/Pan). He makes several choices here that I think work well for the focus of the film. Although the subject is war, the depiction of the war is cinematically visualized without dwelling on the combat. A series of overhead shots, usually accompanied by an airplane swipe across the screen, gives us a bird’s eye view of the events that are taking place on the ground without turning the movie into a combat film.   In a similar fashion, Churchill is shown at times as an isolated figure in a sea of hostility by lighting and again the use of an overhead shot.

 

The contributions of the screen writer probably include the frequently uncomfortable conversations that Churchill had with the King. Certainly, the inspiring ride on the underground is an imagined event that helps the Character know the mind of the British people more forcefully. My memories of my British Public Address graduate seminar, helped give me a little context to the Parliamentary process, but I think anyone would be able to fathom what is going on and what it all means by simply following the cues that McCarten has laid out for us. It may be an old school concept to give us a running slide of calendar days but it works well in building some urgency, even though there is little action in the story. The film makers have managed to put together a very watchable narrative that is not driven by great events but rather by great oratorical moments. I may sometimes be blinded by my own sense of righteousness concerning the events of World War II. I like history and I admire the figures who made a difference in the world, regardless of revisionist social norms. Let’s hope that enough young people get exposed to this story before they start reading about this in school. I don’t think movies should be our main source of knowledge about history, but like Spielberg’s “Lincoln“, “Darkest Hour” manages to make an historical figure the giant that he truly deserves to be.