Stage Beauty

2004, Movie, R, 110 mins

Review

STAGE BEAUTY
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Inspired by the life of 17th-century player Edward Kynaston, acclaimed theater director Richard Eyre's darker, grittier variation on the theme of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) is an elegant and emotionally charged look at the travails of actors and aspiring actresses in Restoration England, when women were forbidden to tread the boards. London, 1660: Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is the most sought-after actor in the theater, not because he can deliver Hamlet's complex dialogue with sparkling grace, but because his delicate features permit his transformation into a persuasive leading lady. Kynaston's favorite role is Othello's Desdemona, which he performs to scene-stealing perfection as his adoring dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), watching from the wings, wistfully whispers the dialogue in sync. Maria is nursing both a crush on Ned and the hope that some day she'll be able to perform on stage. After one performance, Maria "borrows" one of Ned's dresses and sneaks into a local tavern, where she acts the part of Desdemona in an underground production of Othello. Immediately after the curtain call, the frantic Maria rushes back to the theater so her secret won't be discovered. But she stumbles across Ned engaging in a tryst with his patron and lover George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). These incidents all coincide with fickle King Charles II's (Rupert Everett) ultimatum to theater-owner Thomas Betterton (Tom Wilkinson): Betterton's productions have become boring, and his majesty wants to be surprised. When he and his buxom, high-spirited mistress Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper), herself an aspiring actress, get wind of Maria's brazenly illegal act (no pun intended), Charles lifts the ban against female actresses, and the lecherous but influential Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths) becomes Maria's patron. The conceited Kynaston is furious at this twist of fate, and lost when he's ostracized from the theater community as less-talented women take over his job. Adapted by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher from his own play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, the film is an intriguing and hugely theatrical experience whose effectiveness is greatly enhanced by gorgeous period costumes and set design. Crudup slips into the skin of the conflicted, bisexual Kynaston with astonishing ease and gives real emotional resonance to travails that could, frankly, seem more than a little frivolous. Danes is the film's weak link; though undeniably lovely, her modern look and very contemporary expressions occasionally seem out of place in the period setting. leave a comment --Angel Cohn

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