Two little words
Cyrano & Scarborough
By Marc Glassman
Joe Wright, director
Erica Schmidt, script based on Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
Music by Aaron & Bryce Dessner with lyrics by Matt Berninger & Carin Besser
Starring: Peter Dinklage (Cyrano), Haley Bennett (Roxanne), Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Christian), Ben Mendelsohn (De Guiche)
The story of a man with a beautiful soul but an unappealing face who writes romantic letters for someone else to a woman he loves and who adores him back as a friend but not a lover, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac has been a hit since it transfixed Parisian audiences at the end of the 19th century. His ultimate tale of unrequited love has been performed many times on Broadway, in London and Canada at both Stratford and Shaw with such performers as Ralph Richardson, Derek Jacobi and Colm Feore. Christopher Plummer won a Tony for it and Jose Ferrer, an Oscar. There’s even an operatic version, most recently performed in the U.S. at the Met with Placido Domingo as the lead.
Casting Peter Dinklage as the lead in the Joe Wright directed and Erica Schmidt scripted role in the new film of Cyrano is a masterstroke. If there’s been a problem with past Cyranos, it’s envisioning that someone with such a brilliant mind and gift for language, capable of writing elegant letters for someone else, would never declare his love due to a handicap based on having a large nose. Being a dwarf, on the other hand, would be a problem, and one that no one would dispute. Since Dinklage is the most famous dwarf in the world, acclaimed globally for his brilliant performance as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, he is the perfect Cyrano. And it is piquant that the idea and script for this production comes from Dinklage’s wife, Erica Schmidt, who clearly sees the romantic side of him.
Director Joe Wright has also gone romantic in the casting of his wife Haley Bennett as Roxanne, the intellectual and gorgeous cousin of Cyrano, who has been his best friend since childhood, and has longed for a partner whose romantic language and soul would persuade her to love him. Rounding out the main cast, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is charming as Christian, the tongue-tied but handsome man who Roxanne imagines is her perfect lover, while Ben Mendelsohn performs well but doesn’t have much to do as De Guiche, the nobleman who is the perfectly reasonable suitor always rejected in such plays, operas and films.
Beyond the casting of Dinklage, the Wright-Schmidt adaptation of Cyrano is dependent on the musical score composed by the American rock band The National. While their music is fine and certainly moves the plot forward, it lacks a hit or even a song that another band might embrace. The songs are pleasant enough but Sondheim, they’re not.
The other problem with the film is the casting of Bennett with Dinklage: quite simply, there’s not much chemistry between them. Someday I hope to see a production of Cyrano that actually has a wonderful Roxanne. A young Emma Thompson would have been perfect for the role. Or Katharine Hepburn back in Hollywood’s glory days. No offense to Bennett who performs her role capably and sings very well but she doesn’t “own” the part.
What’s here is a Cyrano, which has as its main appeal the performance of Dinklage. Since the play in its many iterations is always dependent on its lead, the film is certainly enjoyable and recommendable due to Dinklage. As the many fans of Game of Thrones will know, Dinklage is an actor who relishes language. His voice caresses English, playing with tone and affect while using direct address. It’s fascinating to watch and listen as he instructs the lovely but inarticulate Christian in the subtleties of the language and how one can craft a proper sentence that expresses emotion without sentimentality. The wonder of Cyrano, like that of Pygmalion, is that the words become the protagonists, the way that people fall in love.
For any late Valentine’s Day enthusiasts out there, or romantics of any stripe, this is an innovative Cyrano, which you can genuinely enjoy at Ontario’s newly opened theatres.
Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, directors
Catherine Hernandez, script based on her novel
Featuring: Liam Diaz (Bing), Sylvie (Fox), Anna Claire Beitel (Laura), Aliya Kanani (Mrs. Hina), Cherish Violet Blood (Marie)
Life in Scarborough is very different from what many of us experience in Toronto. Many Zoomers, I am going to guess, dwell in the city proper and take part in the amenities of urban life when the pandemic isn’t affecting us. We go—my partner and I go–to restaurants and concerts and shops while our children have problems, if at all, based on personal issues, not economic ones.
That’s not the case in Scarborough, an area where newly arrived Canadians have to sort out what they’re feeling while dealing with employment and education and language. Catherine Hernandez, whose background is Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and Indian and started out as a playwright, had her first, quite personal, novel Scarborough shortlisted for the 2017 Toronto Arts Award. It’s an account of lives, which barely resemble that of the old Toronto reality. Here, the children of recently arrived Canadian parents, or impoverished ones, survive and hopefully grow under a liberal regime that doesn’t understand them.
Hernandez adapted her novel to film for the gifted young directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, who bring a wealth of experience in documentaries and shorts to Scarborough. They’re simpatico to Hernandez’s purpose, which is to render a sense of what it’s like to be a child in a part of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), which isn’t established and privileged. The film, like the book, concentrates on three children, Laura, whose parents are neglectful and abusive; Bing, who is Filipino and struggling to assert a non-heterosexual identity and Sylvie, Indigenous, in a family and culture that doesn’t take the time to understand her.
The film, like the novel, is structured around the school season. As fall descends, the children adapt to the educational system and a Canadian way of life. Happily, they have a wonderful teacher Mrs. Hinai, who embraces them as children and tries in every way to help them adapt and grow in Scarborough.
Scarborough is a tough film, as was the novel. There is tragedy. A child dies while others struggle to survive and grow. Nakhai and Williamson have made a truthful drama about lives in an area of Toronto, which is rarely acknowledged. Scarborough is a tough ride but one well worth making.
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