A female theatre dresser creates a stir and sparks a revolution in seventeenth century London theatre by playing Desedmona in Othello. But what will become of the male actor she once worked for and eventually replaced?
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Based in the 1660's of London's theaters, this film is about the rules of gender roles in theatre production, and means to change them for everyone's benefit. Ned Kynaston is the assumedly gay cross-dressing actor who has been playing female parts in plays for years, particularly Desdemona in Othello, he also has a close relationship with a member of the Royal Court, the Duke of Buckingham. One day however, the rules of only men playing women could change when aspiring actress Maria auditions as Kynaston's praised role, Desdemona, and soon enough, King Charles II decides to make the law that all female roles should be played only by women. Maria becomes a star, while Ned finds himself out of work. But after a while, Ned finds it in his nature to forgive Maria's aspiration, they may even fall in love, and Charles may proclaim women will be played by either gender. Written by
I was very impressed by Billy Crudup's portrayal of Ned Kynaston, the last of the great English actors who specialized in Shakespeare's female heroines. The only other film I had seen this actor in was 'Big Fish' and that was a performance that, as it turns out, has grown in stature with each subsequent viewing. One of those quiet, difficult roles that Crudup does to perfection, as it turns out. He never over-plays or attempts to steal a scene. And in Big Fish his character is never meant to steal scenes... who could from Albert Finney! But in the hospital room Crudup manages to bash the viewer with quite an emotional wallop, showing a depth that had hitherto gone unappreciated. In 'Stage Beauty' Crudup never resorts to eye-fluttering she-male antics in order to convey his understanding, indeed internalization, of the eternally feminine principals that are so foreign to most men. He avoids what might have been high-camp in the hands of a lesser actor.
It is also remarkable how beautiful Crudup IS as a woman. He's not what I'd call a "beautiful" man, though he is very appealing, and his sexuality is muted, both as a gay man in his relationship with the Duke of Buckingham, wonderfully performed by Ben Chaplin (now THERE'S a sexy man!) and his burgeoning interest in Claire Danes' Maria. Though that last relationship never rings very true, nor does the director attempt to shove it down our throats as being really feasible for the homosexual Kynsaston to suddenly desire without qualm the lovely Maria.
Danes is quite good in the early scenes as the long-suffering hand-maiden to her male "star" (Crudup). It isn't her fault if the character becomes a tad maudlin in later scenes and a bit more annoying than endearing. She is stretched to the limit in the Desdemona/ Othello scene she plays with Crudup, the latter playing the Moor with uncanny ease, he must be quite a Shakespearean on stage! But Danes is not to be faulted in what is probably a misfire in the concept of this scene, developing as it does out of the stylized acting of Crudup's Desdemona and then leaping wildly into the Method school of acting for this last performance of Desdemona's death. A bit of an anachronism that spoils the film's ultimate impact, but not too much.
There is a wonderful performance of Charles II by Rupert Everett. He seems to specialize in royalty and always holds the eye effortlessly. Everett is getting better and better as he gets older. I look forward to the day when he's a cynical old actor like Ian McKellan who can do anything he pleases brilliantly.
I always enjoy Richard Griffiths who is here Lord Charles, an obese fop with a rapier wit, delivering some juicy and subtle quips to hilarious effect.
The setting is good, if a bit stagy. There is one shot of the old London Bridge with houses and shops built on it that is quite remarkable. The atmosphere of 17th century London is captured quite nicely, which can't have been an easy thing to do. Costumes and other technical credits are beyond reproach.
But somehow this isn't a "great" film, but a very good one and worth repeated viewings.
7 out of 10.
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