So you think you’ve had a turbulent few years? Joe Wright has got divorced, fallen in love, directed a flop, had a baby, cast his new partner in a big-screen musical of Cyrano de Bergerac and filmed on the side of an erupting volcano. Now that’s turbulent.

Wright is one of our leading directors of prestige period films, having been given the reins to the Oscar-winning Atonement, Darkest Hour and Anna Karenina and worked with Keira Knightley, Gary Oldman, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman. Cyrano, however, is his first musical, a lavish, moving “love letter to love” set in 17th-century France.

Haley Bennett as Roxanne and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Christian help make Cyrano relevant 125 years after the play was first published.

The American actress Haley Bennett (Hillbilly Elegy, The Girl on the Train) plays Roxanne and Peter Dinklage from Game of Thrones is the titular army officer whose wit is as fast as his blade. This Cyrano doesn’t have a big nose — he stands out because he is a dwarf. Their love triangle with the smitten but tongue-tied Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr of Waves) was mirrored by the off-screen love triangle between Wright, Anoushka Shankar, from whom he split in 2018 after nine years of marriage, and Bennett, with whom he subsequently got together.

“It’s a film about the importance of human connection,” Wright, 49, says in broad London tones. “And our inability to connect.” Sitting in a suite in a central London hotel, he is stocky and boho-chic in a gray linen suit over a navy T-shirt, with chunky specs and salt-and-pepper beard. Cyrano was shot in the baroque sandstone squares and alleys of Noto in Sicily. “It was a really special time and place,” he says. Eric Fellner of Working Title, the producers of the film, said it had only a 5 per cent chance of happening but “the pandemic created an atmosphere of defiance”, Wright says. “To make something beautiful in the face of these f***ing bleak circumstances. It was certainly one of the best times of my life.”

That doesn’t guarantee it will be a hit, though. “This is my ninth film, and you accept that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t,” Wright says. When does he know? “You get a sniff of it during post, but when you start putting it in front of audiences.” That was when the problems with his aforementioned flop, The Woman in the Window, became apparent — but more on that later. The first time he showed Cyrano in public was this year in Rome. “They gave us a 17-minute standing ovation. So maybe this one works.” A few days after we speak the film will be nominated for two Golden Globes: a lead actor award for Dinklage and best comedy or musical.

Gérard Depardieu’s turn as Cyrano de Bergerac is what first attracted director Joe Wright to the French classic.

Bennett is also impressive, youthful yet knowing, which may placate some who think that she was only cast because she was Wright’s girlfriend. “She kind of cast me rather than me casting her,” he says. “She made me pitch a little bit.” This is the first time he has directed someone he is romantically involved with, he says. Well, there was Rosamund Pike in Pride & Prejudice, his directorial debut, but they only became official after the shoot. “It was great,” he says of working with Bennett. “It was funny how we both immediately slotted into a very professional mode. And by then our daughter was born and so she was with us [Virginia is now three]. It was a very special thing.”

Even when he was filming battle scenes 8,000ft up a snowy Mount Etna. “That was probably the craziest shoot I’ve ever done,” Wright says. “The air is very thin, which made it really difficult to work and every time we put a camera case down it just rolled down the hill. And then on the final day the volcano erupted and started spitting lava at us.” He is beaming.

“It’s a film about the importance of human connection.”

Cyrano is “a musical for people who don’t like musicals”, he says. “I’m not that into them myself.” There are moments of kitsch — the topless, flour-splattered male bakers have a Chippendales vibe — but the music by the National, aka “the American Radiohead”, certainly lacks jazz-hands histrionics. The singing was recorded live, something that Wright’s friend Tom Hooper had tried on Les Misérables. “He created an intimacy and naturalism and authenticity that I was after,” Wright says. Dinklage’s understated baritone evokes “a little bit of Leonard Cohen, a little bit of Tom Waits. Which, again, is the music that I love. I don’t really listen to show tunes at home.”

Bennett as Roxanne in Cyrano. Bennett played the same role in Erica Schmidt’s stage adaptation in 2018.

Wright has loved the story of Cyrano de Bergerac since watching the 1990 film with Gérard Depardieu. “Like a lot of teenagers I felt kind of awkward and unlovable and so I identified with Cyrano,” he says. “I could never really see a reason to make it again, until I saw Peter play the role.” That was in a tiny workshop theater production in Connecticut in late 2018, with Dinklage again playing opposite Bennett, who was eight months pregnant with Wright’s child.

“Roxanne wasn’t quite so virginal,” Wright says with a half smile. “I was really blown away by the beauty of that relationship between Peter and Haley.” They certainly have great chemistry on screen, by turns fiery, playful and vulnerable. “Chemistry is a funny thing,” he says. “It’s a bit of a myth. It makes it sound like it’s this weird thing that they have no control over. It basically comes down to respect.”

The fact that Dinklage didn’t have to strap on a fake schnozz “unlocked the whole thing for a modern audience”, Wright says. “It had this naturalism that worked and I found it more moving than the rubber-nose version.” Christian speaking Cyrano’s words to Roxanne had echoes of contemporary catfishing, whereby people dupe others online using fake aliases. And Cyrano was a very modern hero, with deep insecurities beneath his dazzling repartee.

“I think Peter’s Cyrano is very much about his own feelings of self worth, but also it’s about not trusting others to be able to love him,” says Wright, who amazingly has never seen Dinklage explore similar territory in Game of Thrones. Cyrano contrasts with Christian, who is “completely trusting of everybody. I’m like that — I trust people implicitly. I’d rather trust and be occasionally hurt than never trust at all.”

Joe Wright and Bennett share a front-row seat at the Prada Resort show in 2019.

Did he hesitate to cast Harrison, who is black, as the inarticulate Christian opposite a more eloquent white character? “I don’t see the character as being inarticulate,” he says. “He is like myself and a lot of people who, when they’re faced with someone they’re completely in love with, become utterly tongue-tied. It’s a rare person who can be articulate in the face of love. Christian has a deep emotional intelligence. When he realizes the full extent of the catfishing and that Cyrano is in love with Roxanne, he demands that they tell her the truth.”

It’s hard not to draw parallels between these romantic upheavals and Wright’s own. He and Shankar, 40, the musician daughter of Ravi Shankar and half-sister of Norah Jones, announced their separation in January 2018, the same month that Wright was first pictured with Bennett, 34. Virginia was born in December of that year. In 2020 Shankar released a song, Bright Eyes, in which she asked, “Does she feel younger than me as you’re lying in your bed?”

“Like a lot of teenagers I felt kind of awkward and unlovable and so I identified with Cyrano.”

“Listen, we all make mistakes,” says Wright, who has two sons with Shankar — Zubin, ten, and Mohan, six. I presume he means how he handled the split, not that it happened. The time was, he says, “really horrible”. It coincided with him directing The Woman in the Window, a thriller with Amy Adams and Oldman, which suffered accordingly. “As I say, some work and some don’t. I made a film that was an expression of a lot of anger. The studio came in and said, ‘Right, you’ve got to change the film.’ It was horrendous and the film kind of creatively got taken off me. So the film that people see on Netflix is not representative of the film that I intended to make.”

Things have “calmed down” between him and Shankar, he says. He lives with Bennett and Virginia in Somerset and his boys live with their mother in London and come to him every second weekend and during school holidays. “They get countryside as well as city and so they’re very happy,” he says. “I get to live in the English countryside with my love, having defined myself as a Londoner for 46 years.”

Roxanne and Cyrano aren’t afraid to be different, and that’s why they connect in Wright’s new musical adaptation.

Wright had a “not financially but culturally very privileged” upbringing in Islington, north London, where his parents ran the Little Angel puppet theater. “My mum is still there making puppets and my sister is a puppeteer,” he says. After that “romantic fairytale world”, he wasn’t prepared for his “dreadful” secondary school, Islington Green. “Ninety per cent of the teachers’ time was spent trying to control the class.” To make matters worse he was dyslexic, although it wasn’t diagnosed until after he had left. “I went through my whole education just being told I was lazy or stupid.”

Luckily he had creative outlets. In his teens there was the Anna Scher drama school, where he met Kathy Burke and “what became the entire cast of Grange Hill and EastEnders”, and later a degree in fine art and film at Central St Martins. Among his peers there was Alexander McQueen, whom Wright later saw at parties thrown by his friends Jay Jopling and Sam Taylor-Wood (now Taylor-Johnson). He started directing shorts and then series for the BBC including Nature Boy and Bob & Rose. Then, in 2004, he was offered Pride & Prejudice, despite not having read the book when he was sent Deborah Moggach’s script. He has never looked back. “I love being on set,” he says. “It’s the only place I really feel truly at home.”

He talks about attending the Gotham awards in New York (“they had non-gender acting awards — I think it’s the way forward”) and his next film, an adaptation of “a book that I’ve loved since I was 19”. He is writing the screenplay with Conor McPherson, the Irish playwright, who is better at dialogue. “I’m far more interested in telling the story non-verbally, which I think certainly comes from the dyslexia.”

And Wright is more interested in love, he thinks, than anger. “I should just keep my anger to myself,” he says. “There are other [directors] who are better angry. So I should just let them do that. And I’ll do love.”

Ed Potton writes about film, music, and the arts. He also co-presents a weekly film show for The Times of London