Jeffrey Hatcher (Play: Compleat Female Stage Beauty , Jeffrey Hatcher)
Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, Richard Griffiths, Rupert Everett, Edward Fox
R (For sexual content and language)
In a time when women weren’t allowed to portray themselves on stage, men became instant celebrities for their effeminate portrayals. Stage Beauty explores the relationship between a woman wanting to crack her way into theater and a man who can’t accept the change.
Claire Danes plays Maria, the beautiful assistant of famed male thespian Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup). Ned has been celebrated throughout London for his talented portrayals of women on the stage. Known most for artfully dying on the stage, Ned has an immense following and loves going to parties in costume as a woman. Having spent so much time playing one, he can’t seem to get along without being one.
The law prohibits women from performing on the stage but Maria won’t be repressed and takes her performance to a seedy tavern where she receives unique attention. Her performance on the stage is weak and uninspired but she is certain she can make a success out of it. She takes her appeal to King Charles the II (Rupert Everett) hoping for him to repeal the law that prohibits capable women from taking the stage to play their own roles that have become hopelessly stereotyped.
Charles agrees but Ned takes the news badly and goes on a tirade that ends with his downfall. He grew up playing women. He was taught from a very young age the way to perform as a woman. He can’t play anything but women.
Danes gives the kind of performances any woman could have given, much like the character she portrays. However, Crudup is the true revelation. He takes us on a journey into the soul of a man trapped in a woman’s body on the stage. His life has been dreary until his success and his subsequent failure to retain his dominance of the stage sends him into a horrible dive into obscurity. His mental collapse and transformation are mesmerizing.
Director Richard Eyre ( Iris ) keeps his lens trained on the actors. Their story is one that requires deft attention while the background and story flourish on the sidelines. Eyre gives Stage Beauty the emotional impact that was sometimes lacking from Hollywood’s other recent foray into British theatrical history Shakespeare in Love.
The settings are sumptuous and the costumes are fun. The film is as much comedy as it is drama and this serves only to deepen the emotional impact of the film’s closing dramatic scenes. Eyre never shrinks from controversial topics in the film, including a homosexual relationship between Ned and George Villars (Ben Chaplin), the Duke of Buckingham. He uses these scenes as statements of fact and for character development as opposed to tawdry shock-the-audience stunts that many directors would fall for.
Stage Beauty has the grace and charm of a great play. It has its acts, its drama and its comedy. An audience who appreciates the nuances of performance and story will value the film greatly. Even some viewers who enjoy a good laugh will find something pleasurable in Stage Beauty but may find themselves lost when it comes to the story.
March 2, 2005