Billy Crudup and Claire Danes give extraordinary performances in Richard Eyre's STAGE BEAUTY, set in Restoration England in the 1660s. After Oliver Cromwell's 18-year ban on stage productions, King Charles II took the throne and encouraged the return of the theater; however, women were not permitted to act, so men had to play the female roles. In STAGE BEAUTY, Crudup stars as Ned Kynaston, the biggest star of the day, wowing audiences as Desdemona in Shakespeare's OTHELLO. The gorgeous actor's dresser, Maria (whose full name is Margaret Hughes), is not only deeply devoted to Kynaston, she is also in love with him and the theater, so much so that after his performance, she runs to the nearby Cockpit Tavern to play Desdemona herself, even though it is against the law. All the while, diarist Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville) scribbles notes on all that is going on around him, detailing the transition from the last great male actor playing female roles to the first great female actress to take the stage in England. Reminiscent of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (in fact, the excellent Tom Wilkinson plays a theater owner in both films), STAGE BEAUTY features a splendid supporting cast, including Rupert Everett as Charles II, Zoe Tapper as his mistress Nell Gwyn, Ben Chaplin as the bisexual Duke of Buckingham, and Richard Griffiths as Sir Charles Sedley, who takes Hughes under his wing. STAGE BEAUTY is a treat for lovers of Shakespeare and the craft of acting, as the competition--and possible romance--between Kynaston and Hughes leads to a deep examination of character, personality, loyalty, and love.
I will admit that there were 2 main reasons I rented this movie: 1) I'm a fan of Claire Danes - loved her in "My So-Called Life" and in "Stardust"; and 2) I was morbidly curious about the chemistry of both Claire and Billy Crudup in a movie together. Knowing that allegedly, Billy had left Mary-Louise Parker - while she was pregnant - for Claire got me wondering what these two were like together. No, not like that (not really), how they were in public, onscreen. What was the vibe, that's what I wanted to know. Probably not the best reason to watch a film, but hey, that's how it went down.
I was totally expecting something boring (i.e. critically acclaimed) but I actually found this movie very charming. "Stage Beauty" is rooted in historical fact, but the makers of the film were a little fast and loose with some of the details, for dramatic purposes, of course. Billy Crudup portrays English actor Edward Kynaston, who really did exist back in the 17th century. Ned Kynaston is at the top of his game, admired and adored by all of London. Men and women alike found him fascinating. He's so beautiful that many of them want to see the business, up close and personal, and Kynaston will play along, usually for his own amusement. And why not? He socializes with the King and his lover is a Duke. He's untouchable.
His dresser, Maria, is desperately in love with him, and mimics his every move, watching him in secret to gain a sense of how to act on the stage. She copies his current role, that of Desdemona, then she sneaks off to put on an illegal performance at a nearby tavern. But her performance as a woman playing a woman onstage garners attention, and before too long, it is Maria who is sought after on the stage and Kynaston who ends up a pariah, and unable to play the roles that made him famous. He is a man who knows how to act as a woman, not as a man. He's studied since he was a young boy the mannerisms and gestures of women, and makes them his own. He is not comfortable playing a role of his own gender. When the King announces that women are now allowed to play women's roles onstage, and men are not allowed to portray women, he is devastated, driven to parody what was once his illustrious performance at skanky dance halls for leering audiences.
Meantime, Maria realizes that while she's all the sensation for being the first woman to act onstage in women's roles since King Charles II changed the law, knows deep in her heart that she cannot act. Still pining for Kynaston and needing him to save her botched performance, she tracks him down and begs for his assistance. She is a woman mimicking a man who mimicked a woman, and as you can imagine, it's just not working for her. She needs the great Kynaston to teach her how to be a woman on the stage...
This movie wasn't boring at all. In fact, it was rather engaging. I enjoyed every minute of it, from watching Billy Crudup put on such a hypnotic performance as a woman, to enjoying Claire pulling a fast one on him when she runs off with his wig to play the identical role, to laughing at Rupert Everett portraying Charles II, who kept a lot of dogs...cocker spaniels, I guess they were, with matching ribbons. It was hard to look away from Billy, whether he was acting as Desdemona or just as Kynaston. There's this unique blending of male to female and back again. One minute he seemed very feminine, so graceful, and the next powerful and masculine. Of course, being a man, he exaggerated his mannerisms, especially for the stage, but they had a genuinely authentic quality to them. It was so fluid, the way he blended the genders so well, that it was easy to see why he was so convincing acting as a woman.
As Maria, Claire is both docile and full of passion. Her uncertainty about her acting and her more tender feelings towards Kynaston are so endearing, yet because he knows how to push her buttons, she's not afraid to roar at him. The chemistry between them is subtle yet evident - they seemed very comfortable with each other - and it actually worked well for their performancess. I liked the ease with which they related to one another. I also liked how in the scene towards the end of the film when they are practicing before going 'live", their characters both strove to appear better, more worthy, in the other's eyes because of their mutual respect, which took awhile to be awaken but eventually it did. It just clicked.
This is not a romantic film, per say, but it does have moments ripe with possibility. The ending is left up to the viewer's imagination, and to be honest, that's exactly how it should have ended. The film was more sensual than sexual, fitting with the arena of the stage, and some things are left open for interpretation. It was just a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, with two talented actors with a fine way around an English accent. A pleasant surprise. I'm ever so glad I watched it.
[Sidenote: I see that Billy will be in the movie adaptation of the book "Eat, Pray, Love", which I haven't read, but have heard interesting things about. I'll probably see the movie before reading the book though. That's what I tend to do with critically acclaimed pieces of literature].
Rating: **** out of *****