In 1660s England, women are forbidden to appear on stage and Edward 'Ned' Kynaston (Billy Crudup) uses his beauty and skill to make the great female roles his own - like Desdemona in Othello. When King Charles II (Rupert Everett) decides to allow real women to tread the boards, it is good news for the monarch's mistress, the saucy, stage-struck Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper). It is also good news for secret thesp Maria (Claire Danes), Kynaston's lovelorn young dresser who has been secretly performing at a seedy tavern in lavish costumes borrowed from her employer. It is very bad news for Ned who plummets from his exalted position as one of London's leading ladies to become a virtual nobody - until Maria, now a rising star, takes it upon herself to make a man of him again.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
In the rustic theatres of 17th century London, a beautiful woman in a striking costume is as alluring as she would be today. Even if she were a man - as she could be today.
Ohio born Jeffrey Hatcher's fact-inspired play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty has now become a compleat film, thanks to an intelligent and inspired adaptation of his own work, a director who knows what he wants to achieve and a cast willing and able to bring us characters we can love, hate, disdain ... but never disregard. Billy Crudup gets inside the character of Ned Kynaston, a somewhat tragic young man whose back story is teased out much to the benefit of the emotional landscape of the film. No-one remembers the real Ned, of course, but Crudup gives us a very credible version. We learn how and why he is such a perfect leading lady, and it's much more affecting than a superficial camp joke.
Whether you fantasise about the role if it were in the hands of Jude Law is up to you.
Claire Danes is emotionally transparent, but never pitiable - far from it. She is the beating heart and the compassionate friend, the instrument of Ned's survival and transformation. Which is another great strength of the script: Ned's decline is not tragic but it is dramatic. His resurrection - if you can call it that - is not manufactured but organic. After all the talents he has nurtured all these years are very real, and we're saved from false sentimentality by the resolution, without pandering to cheap emotional devices.
Both Danes and Crudup are American, but neither gives it away; the language of the entire cast is neatly positioned in a limbo that accommodates the 17th century by suggestion, but without a fussy accuracy. Likewise the production as a whole, which skilfully posits us in the London of 1660, just five years before the great fire, without overstating itself. Driven by vaguely celtic violins and guitar mixed with piano and drums, the George Fenton score is also suggestive rather than factually pedantic. It works a treat.
Tom Wilkinson's natural screen persona always lands a solid punch in these period pieces, here as the theatre manager and star, playing Othello to Crudup's Desdemona. Nothing jars in this film, and the emotional joyride is grounded by a great sense of literature and the certainty that these are real human beings.
Overwhelmingly humanistic and full of the understanding of the human condition, Stage Beauty is rewarding and entertaining while staying relevant. Director Richard Eyre is confident about the upbeat tone and his sense of style and dynamics helps propel the film beyond simple labels: romantic period comedy/drama and historic biopic with cross references to a drama about finding oneself...now there's a genre. Better to just enjoy it, never knowing what to call it.
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STAGE BEAUTY (M)
CAST: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, ZoŽ Tapper, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, Edward Fox, Richard Griffiths
PRODUCER: Robert De Niro, Hardy Justice, Jane Rosenthal
DIRECTOR: Richard Eyre
SCRIPT: Jeffrey Hatcher (from his own play)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Andrew Dunn
EDITOR: Tariq Anwar
MUSIC: George Fenton
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jim Clay
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Dendy
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 25, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Magna Pacific
VIDEO RELEASE: June 8, 2005