The Telluride Film Festival was in full swing yesterday with two major world premieres, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, which followed the premiere of Joe Wright’s Cyrano the night before. All three can carve out a space in this year’s Oscar race.
In MGM’s Cyrano, four-time Emmy winner Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) plays the titular role as he did in the 2018 stage musical written by Erica Schmidt, itself based on the 1897 Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac. We’ve seen several versions of the Cyrano story, from José Ferrer’s interpretation in the 1950 film to Gerard Depardieu in 1990 and of course, Steve Martin in 1987’s Roxanne. But we’ve never seen anything quite like this. We have the traditional period detail (the film was shot entirely on the island of Sicily and looks lush and expensive) but this Cyrano is a full-blown musical with original songs, music by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner and elaborate choreography. Think Moulin Rouge! meets Shakespeare in Love. Peter Dinklage’s work as the eternally friend-zoned Cyrano de Bergerac is among the best of his career but after a decade on television in Game of Thrones, will film audiences and film academy voters see him a romantic leading man? It definitely won’t be his diminutive size that undercuts his chances but the finicky nature of Oscar voters when it comes to stars making TV-to-film transitions. But Dinklage began in film and continues to work in it steadily. His co-star Kelvin Harrison, Jr., playing the handsome but inarticulate Christian, absolutely soars with a singing voice that will surprise, Haley Bennett as Roxanne, the focus of both of their love, is also sublime. Ben Mendelsohn is one of the most deliciously and dastardly villains to hit the screen in a long time and his individual number is a film highlight. The production design by 6-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood (Atonement, Beauty and the Beast) could get attention as could the costume design by Massimo Cantini Parrini, Oscar-nominated this year for Pinocchio. The combining of the sound categories (editing and mixing) will make it harder for the film to earn that singular nomination whereas before, musicals were a sure bet for at least mixing. Ultimately, this is a return to greatness for Joe Wright, to his era of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice.
In a year packed with several musicals like In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story coming out in December, Cyrano will have to fight for a spot but the film’s original songs and live recorded vocals will set it apart from the pack.
Belfast might look like Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Roma and you’re not wrong. The personal nature of the story, the black and white cinematography, it’s very evocative of that film. But Kenneth Branagh’s coming of age in an era of Irish strife in 1969 mines comedy and humor throughout, oftentimes in the middle of its worst violence. It infuses movies, television and plays in a way that emphasizes how much we depend on entertainment to get us through the most difficult periods, whether personal or political. In that sense it’s far less like Roma and more like, and stay with me, the crossroads of Cinema Paradiso and Jojo Rabbit. It’s a film that will speak deeply to older voters and broadly to nearly anyone during this two-year long pandemic that has forced us indoors with entertainment as our only outlet. The performances across the board are fantastic here so it’s going to be about strategy of category placement. Focus Features would do well to push Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan lead with Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench in supporting. Poor Jude Hill, a fantastic little breakout star, would be a lead as well but it’s virtually impossible for a young, male actor to get lead consideration even if he is. Branagh’s screenplay is an Oscar shoe-in and the photography of the film, which isn’t simply black and white but uses wild framing, angles and setups to feel like a ‘movie’ if that makes sense. Haris Zambarloukos (Cinderella) should be a sure bet here. The film could easily snag a SAG cast nomination on its way to PGA and BAFTA success and if the DGA goes for Branagh too, we have a Best Picture frontrunner.
The decision to premiere the film at Telluride instead of Toronto was a shrewd one by Focus Features. Since 2008, every Best Picture winner except for Green Book in 2018 has played Telluride. It’s the real jumpstart of an Oscar campaign, especially if you’re going for the top spot.
Warner Bros.’ King Richard might be this year’s most stealth player. Much like the Williams sisters themselves, there is a backhand ready to smack down other contenders and push it all the way. While the film starts out pretty run of the mill, it quickly keeps getting better and better. Even though it’s Will Smith’s show, and he has some incredible Oscar clips here, it’s got a killer ensemble from Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as Venus and Serena, a great Jon Bernthal and the film’s secret weapon, Aunjanue Ellis. Smith is assured a nomination and he’s very much in contention for the win. But, history has shown us that Best Actor winners need to have their film in Best Picture too. The last time a Best Actor winner didn’t was Jeff Bridges in 2009 with Crazy Heart. Interestingly enough, Bridges was a long-respected and overdue actor for major awards and 2009 was the first year of the Academy expanding the Best Picture lineup to 10 films and using a preferential ballot. That 10-film lineup only lasted two years and since then has been a sliding scale but this year returns to that standard 10. That only helps Smith as he could be another Bridges or find himself with his first Oscar nomination in a Best Picture nominee. Voters shouldn’t overlook Ellis here, either. A two-time Emmy nominee (including this year), Ellis has often been a film’s unrewarded highlight. Her work in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk deserved multiple accolades. This is her moment to shine and be recognized as one of the most talented and consistently great actresses we have and to push her into the mainstream stratosphere.
In the Q&A after the film, director Reinaldo Marcus Green said he felt uniquely right for this film, about two siblings in the same vocation who are not competitors but their greatest supporters, as he has a brother who is an accomplished television director, Rashaad Ernesto Green. That’s the groundwork for a strong narrative.