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Billy Crudup as Ned Kynaston
Claire Danes as Maria
Rupert Everett as King Charles II
Richard Griffiths as Sir Charles Sedley
Tom Wilkinson as Betterton
Ben Chaplin as George Villiars, Duke of Buckingham
Zoe Tapper as Nell Gwynn
Hugh Bonneville as Samuel Pepys
Alice Eve as Miss Frayne
Fenella Woolgar as Lady Meresvale
Isabella Calthorpe as Lady Jane Bellamy
Derek Hutchinson as Stage Manager
Mark Letheren as Male Emilia/Dickie
Edward Fox as Sir Edward Hyde
Hermione Gulliford as Mrs. Barry
Clare Higgins as Mistress Revels
In 17th century London, when women are forbidden from performing onstage, Edward "Ned" Kynaston is the toast of the town for playing the most beautiful "women" in the plays of William Shakespeare. When the king changes his mind and declares that only women should play female roles, Kynaston is sent on a downwards spiral of despair and gender identity issues, while his former dresser Maria (Claire Danes) thrives as an actress, often playing the same roles that used to belong to Ned. She's also the only one that may be able to help Kynaston find his true identity as an actor.
Period pieces are not my favorite genre or forte, because they tend to be excuses for pretentious Americans to practice their British accents. While this may also be the case with Stage Beauty, it is able to transcend the stigmas of the genre by showing an interesting character study set in a period where the British theatre was controlled by the whims of royalty. Instead of focusing on the royalty though, it looks at the role of the theatre actor in British society and how a star like Kynaston could go from being held in high esteem to becoming little more than a joke. Much of this is done by contrasting the peaks in his career against that of his dresser, a wannabe actress who mimics his every move on stage, something shown with performances of both of them as Desdemona in Shakespeare's "Othello".
Although some might see Kynaston's story as little more than a preamble to the modern day drag queen, there's more depth behind this story of a man whose years spent learning how to be a woman screws with his sense of identity, to the point where he's unsure of whether he would ever be able to even pretend to be a man. This makes his sexuality questionable since he seems to enjoy cavorting with his female groupies while also having an intimate relationship with a duke, but neither of them seem to want to accept him for who he really is when not wearing the make-up or dresses. This dichotomy adds to the dilemma of being part of a world where women are forbidden from appearing on stage, yet there's nothing wrong with men dressing up as women. It's quite a contrast to how theatre and performers are viewed today, as is the underlying theme that explores the differences between being a great "actor" and being a "star".
That latter premise seems oddly appropriate considering that Stage Beauty stars two of the most underrated actors working today, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. The reason the movie works as well as it does is because of the onscreen chemistry of the duo. Their ability to keep up with each other, whether they're playing the more dramatic or humorous scenes might have been the impetus for the two of them to become a real-life couple after making the movie. Things get a bit silly towards the end with an outlandish love scene between them, but after a false ending, the real climax of the film more than makes up for it with an unbelievable ending that gives them both a chance to shine.
Director Richard Eyre's last movie, the 2001 biodrama Iris, received three Oscar nominations for its stars despite being seen by few people. Stage Beauty once again shows his talents at bringing out the best in actors, and he is fortunate to have a terrific script adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his own stageplay "Compleat Female Stage Beauty". It's a script that would make the great Bard proud, mixing equal amounts of drama and humor to create character dynamics that work as well as some of Shakespeare's best work.
The humor is where the movie is at its most entertaining, poking fun at royalty and its desire to stick its fingers into every pie, especially regarding theatre. This is represented by two hilarious and over-the-top performances from Rupert Everett and Richard Griffiths as spoiled and clueless royals. Once you figure out who Griffith is and which character he's better known for playing in the last few years-it's in a series of movies about a boy wizard--his performance as a flamboyantly dressed lord is even funnier. Newcomer Zoe Tapper is also quite delightful as the king's ingénue, Nell Gwynn, who uses her sexuality to move up the ranks from flower girl to stage star.
The Bottom Line:
With a great script and many great performances, including another breakthrough from Billy Crudup, Stage Beauty is a must-see for Shakespeare fans, and it may very well be the most entertaining period piece since Shakespeare in Love or Amadeus.