Film reviews: Cyrano | The Duke | La Mif

One of the most expressive actors around, Peter Dinklage shines in Joe Wright’s big screen adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, writes Alistair Harkness

Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage in Cyrano PIC:: Peter Mountain / © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage in Cyrano PIC:: Peter Mountain / © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Cyrano (12A) ***

The Duke (12A) ***

La Mif (15) ***

The latest big screen adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac sees Peter Dinklage reprise the role of the eponymous love-lorn wordsmith he first played in a 2018 stage musical adaptation. That version, with songs by rock group The National, was conceived by Dinklage’s wife, the playwright and theatre director Erica Schmidt. The new film, also written by Schmidt and simply titled Cyrano, is an adaptation of that re-imagining, albeit filtered through the wayward sensibility of Joe Wright (Darkest Hour), who in turn casts his own partner Haley Bennett as Roxanne, Cyrano’s objet d’amour (Bennett actually played Roxanne in the original stage production but was replaced when it moved off-Broadway in 2019). As such, it’s something of a toss-up as to who thinks who’s the real star. Schmidt’s script feeds Dinklage the best lines and the tragic character arc; Wright’s swooning camera moves work over-time to make Bennett seem like the centre of the universe. In the end, though, Dinklage’s verbal jousting and emotional turmoil prove a lot more engaging than lavish shots of Bennett done up to the nines in period finery.

That’s perhaps as it should be. Edmond Rostand’s much-adapted play is, after all, a fable about seeing beyond the surface of things in matters of the heart and Dinklage is certainly inspired casting in this regard. In this version, Cyrano’s physical stature and pride, rather than the size of his nose, prevent him declaring his love for Roxanne and the simple act of placing the Game of Thrones star in a context where his outsized bravado and charisma are undercut by crippling insecurity about his appearance gives this take a rawer emotional core, one that Dinklage – one of the most expressive actors around – ensures burns through every close-up. It also comes through in some of the musical numbers. There’s an unmistakeable Hamilton vibe in the verbal duels Cyrano engages in and Dinklage’s baritone drawl quite suits The National’s grandiose take on the traditions of musical theatre. Elsewhere, though, Wright stages showtunes as if he’s shooting a 1980s music video (one involves a montage of love letters raining down on its protagonists). Too rarely does the music emerge organically from the drama.

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The film also struggles to flesh out Roxanne’s complexities. Her relentless pursuit by the odious Colonel De Guiche (a suitably unpleasant Ben Mendholson) puts her in a horrible bind, yet her love-at-first sight attraction to Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr), the handsome but witless soldier whose love letters Cyrano ghostwrites, never feels convincing. Bennett’s big show-stopping number I Need More, a song of desperation designed to facilitate the play’s famous balcony scene, sounds more like a petulant customer complaint from someone with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

It doesn’t help that Schmidt and Wright needlessly cleave to a backstory that locates the origins of Roxanne and Cyrano’s friendship (and the latter’s yearning) in childhood. There’s really no hiding the fact that Dinklage is almost 20 years Bennett’s senior, so when they reference their long-standing bond it’s a little creepy. But maybe that’s also the point. This is a story in which a woman is targeted by three deceitful men and unrequited love takes on the unhealthy characteristics of addiction. In its own clumsy way, Cyrano stumbles upon a truth much less comforting than love conquers all.

The Duke PIC: Nick Wall

Directed by the late Roger Michell, The Duke finds the mercurial director working in the same comfortably twinkly style that made the likes of Notting Hill and Venus such easy viewing. Based on a bizarre true story, it stars Jim Broadbent as Kenton Bunton, an ageing Geordie cab driver who, in 1961, was accused of stealing a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the wall of the National Gallery.

“National treasure steals national treasure” could well be the shorthand pitch for the movie given the extent to which it relies on Broadbent’s charm to make the bumptious Bunton appealing. An autodidactic crusader convinced he’s the next Shakespeare, Kempton’s admirable determination to never betray his political or artistic principles is only made possible because of his long-suffering wife’s willingness to scrub floors to keep the family afloat (she’s played with weary resignation by Helen Mirren). This is the cosy feel-good version of the story, though, not a slice of kitchen-sink realism, so Kempton’s Robin Hood-like plan to ransom the stolen painting to fund free TV licences for pensioners becomes instead a way to poke gentle fun at the establishment. The end result is a pleasantly polished bit of whimsy, with a sly twist ending.

French street slang for ‘family’, the title of La Mif is an appropriate one for this hard-hitting social realist tale built around the fractious bonds that a group of vulnerable teenage girls in care form with each other and their case workers. An ensemble piece, the film is split into chapters, each following a different character, but always circling back to a key moment – a subtle way to reinforce how patterns of abuse and behaviour repeat themselves. Gradually, though, the film also reveals itself to be a complex portrait of Lora (Claudia Grob), the veteran director of the care home whose own life seems to be spiralling out of control. Director Fred Baillif (a former social worker) gets vibrant performances from a his young cast, but Grob’s turn as Lora holds it all together.

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All films in cinemas from 25 February

La Mif PIC: BFI Distribution

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