Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac feels like it would be a perfect candidate for being turned into a musical, and indeed it would appear that exactly that transformation has happened, multiple times, in both French and English. So arguably there's actually nothing special about the new film Cyrano, except that it is, as far as I can tell, the first time that the play has been turned into a musical as a motion picture. But that's putting us on a turn towards cynicism much earlier than I had intended. So: here we are, with a Cyrano de Bergerac movie musical, and it's very pleasant and charming and diverting, and worth seeing if you're the kind of person who sees this sort of thing.

Even including the fact that it's been turned into a musical, this is only the second time that the play has been filmed pretty much straight as a movie in English (the last time was a 1950 film that won an Oscar for José Ferrer), without being more or less heavily modernised. So that makes it more or less special as well. The story, in brief, is that Cyrano (Peter Dinklage), a tremendously witty nobleman and poet serving as a soldier right at the onset of France's involvement in the Thirty Years' War, is deeply in love with his cousin Roxanne (Haley Bennett) - the new film changes them to childhood friends. She loves a soldier in Cyrano's regiment, Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and in a fit of masochistic pique, Cyrano decides to help the chummy but dimwitted Christian court her by writing breathtakingly beautiful love letters. This comes to a head when... sort of never, actually, which is part of the point; Cyrano and Christian's deception gets so tangled up and Roxanne's love grows so intense that it really does take "I dunno, maybe we'll luck out and both of us will die in the wars" ends up as the only way the two men can disentangle themselves from the situation.

This Cyrano, which began life as a new translation of the play written by Erica Schmidt - married to Dinklage, who was built into the role from the ground up - makes one substantive change to the concept while leaving the rest of it almost perfectly intact, and it works extraordinarily well: change the source of all Cyrano's self-loathing and doubt from an extraordinarily large and unsightly nose, to dwarfism. Part of the reason it works is because it facilitates the casting of Dinklage, a tremendously good actor with screen presence to spare, who can  use that contrast between his charisma and his character's poisonous self-doubt as the fuel for a whole movie's worth of well-built characterisation, sharpening the tragic elements of the story (which Schmidt explicit makes a matter of too much pride.

The other big change, one that requires shortening the play's material but doesn't otherwise alter it much, is to fill it up with songs with lyrics by married couple Matt Berninger & Carin Bessner and music by twin brothers Aaron & Bryce Dessner, which is close enough to the full creative team behind indie rock group The National that it's convenient just to say "songs by The National". And I am not going to tell anyone what that phrase should make them feel, though I will say, going back to my opening sentiment: a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac makes sense. This musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac makes a little bit less sense. The songs are hummably pleasant, and their uncomplicated lyricism and subdued Broadway-meets-folk-rock music provides a striking contrast to the verbal fireworks baked into any appropriate adaptation of Rostand's ext, an this is not a contrast that the filmmakers, guided by director Joe Wright (who is married to Bennett - it's quite a familial production), seem all that interested in exploiting. More crucially, while Dinklage is an extraordinary actor who brings great nuance to Cyrano (even if he's not always entirely able to navigate the stylistic whorls of Schmidt's translation), he is, as it happens, a pretty fucking lousy singer. This does not make him stand out in the Cyrano cast: the best one can say about Harrison's singing voice is that it's fairly clean, and the best one can say about Ben Mendelsohn, playing the foppish villain Count De Guiche, is that he's not Peter Dinklage (Mendelsohn is otherwise my easy pick for best in show, finding exactly the right register to make De Guice seem ludicrously puffed-up and idiotic while also making him a credible threat). This leaves it entirely to Bennett to make anything out of the songs, and she's got a strong enough voice - warm and sweet enough to make showtunes sound like something more operatic, even if I probably wouldn't want her to actually take a crack at opera - that it actually works. Still, there are enough songs, and Dinklage is tasked with singing enough of them, that the experiment feels like a draw at best, an unforced error at worst; the film's musical highlight is a  melancholic ballad from the frontlines of battle performed by ringers Glen Hansard, Sam Amidon, and Scott Folan, and this isn't at all the kind of musical where the best number should be performed by unnamed characters who don't appear outside of the duration of that song.

Outside of this, the film is mostly a pretty smooth, likeable Cyrano production that doesn't even briefly threaten to replace the 1990 French Cyrano de Bergerac as the best extant filmed version. All four of the leads are very good, and the overall mood is light and fast enough that this ends up being an unusually funny version of the material; ostensibly the play is a tragicomedy, but one of those where the "comedy" is so mannered and arch that it's more of a "ahaha yes, droll" sort of things than an actual laugh-out-loud collection of wit and farcical complications. Here, I actually laughed out loud sometimes.

It's the kind of project that Wright is a natural, even inevitable fit for: his twin interests in creating costume dramas mired in physicality and his love of blurring cinematic and theatrical devices are exactly what Schmidt's conception of the material wants. The problem is that natural inevitability doesn't inherently mean that Wright is also a great director, and Cyrano pretty immediately falls into the space that all of his collaborations with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey do: it looks very fussy and stately and covered in a dusky haze through which the camera darts restlessly on clean, straight lines. It's a very brittle aesthetic, one that's both redeemed and exaggerated by the fact that this is a musical: Wright and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui demonstrate early on that their only real idea about what to do with that is to put large groups of backup dancers behind solo singers who are centered in the frame, having them all perform the same relatively slow-moving angular movements as a big group. It's kind of neat, turning group dances in graphic design, but it's also kind of stilted and samey, and it increases the sense of artificial brittleness that's already locked into the "we are going to make such physically-grounded Oscarbait!" style that Wright and McGarvey excel at. None of this is exactly bad, but it's definitely uninspired, and it's enough to keep a very charming take on Cyrano stuck at a level of middlebrow proficiency that's awfully hard to be excited by, as watchable as it undoubtedly is.