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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
Before the Great Fire and the Great Plague of the mid-seventeenth century, London slowly, joyously awoke to the end of the Interregnum, that dark period of the evil regicide, Cromwell and his dull and dim son and successor. Theaters shut down during the Protectorate now reopened and the die-hard, dour Puritans either doffed their somber garb and decamped for more favorable vice-free venues or joined the fun.
Director Richard Eyre and script author Jeffrey Hatcher (who wrote the play on which "Stage Beauty" is derived) set the screen with a feast of authentic costumes and an almost palpable ambiance of a great city resurrecting a rich cultural life, at least for those of means.
But, as has been said, the play is the thing and the acting here is uniformly engrossing, indeed superb.
Based more or less on history, the film chronicles an awkward and for many painful evolution of law and theater, the two intertwined. For when Charles II was restored to the throne lost by his father (who also lost something else of even more estimable value), theaters reopened but under an old law that forbade the presence of actresses on the stage. The great female roles of Shakespeare were performed by men, some of whom were the subjects of audience and patron adulation for their skills of gender mimicry.
Ned Keynaston (Billy Crudop) is the leader of the pack, a star of the stage whose Desdemona is the height of his career. Serving as his dresser is Maria (Clair Danes), a frustrated actress who mouths the lines of Desdemona from the side of the stage as Ned wows the punters.
Maria actually gets to act behind Ned's back but in a less than first-line theater, her costume borrowed, to be generous, from the unsuspecting Ned.
What follows is a comedy and a drama as the king (Rupert Everett), at the urging of one of his mistresses, Nell Gynn (newcomer Zoe Tapper) proclaims that women may take on the roles of their sex and the cadre of female impersonators must seek new and gender authentic roles. At first amused, then devastated by a loss of roles, income and prestige, Ned slides to singing bawdy songs in drag to a somewhat low(er) class clientele in a sink run by a foulmouthed harridan. But under the protection of a genuinely odious, rotund and foul Sir Charles (Richard Griffith), Maria becomes the toast of the town for her fine acting.
Sexual attraction equally matched by a moving ambiguity permeates both the roles played by Maria and Ned and their off-stage lives. Maria is in love with Ned who is, at least, potentially bisexual while actually intimate with one of the king's favorites, the second Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). Buckingham was, in actuality, one of the most complex characters during Charles's two decade exile and then restoration to the throne. A conniver and master manipulator, here his skills are shown as being wholly adapted to surviving in a court attended by intrigue at every turn.
Eyre projects role reversal both with Ned and Maria's theater life and their increasing personal but never simple involvement. Can he make love to a woman? Does he know himself what his orientation is? There is a certain contemporaneity to the artfully acted issues raised in this mid-1600s scenario.
Eyre could not have selected a better cast. Crudop is penetrating as a man whose whole, strange persona is transformed in an instant by a monarch's command. Everett is disarmingly foppish as the Stuart monarch but in a critical scene he reveals his deep, lasting resentment over his father's and his dynasty's fate as he orders women to be allowed to perform. Edward Fox is splendid in short takes as Charles's key minister, Sir Edward Hyde (the Earl of Clarendon but he's never identified with his proper peerage title).
Zoe Tapper may well have studied the life of her character, "the Protestant Whore" (so known and loved by the London underclass to distinguish her from the despised "Catholic Whore" who alternated with Nell for the king's company and body (forget about the queen-she doesn't even make an appearance here). She's crude, raw, vulgar, sentimental, loyal and cunning - she IS Nell Gynn.
Hugh Bonneville is the randy, compulsive diarist Sir Samuel Pepys, father of the Royal Navy, here a stage door Johnny, a voyeur. Ben Chaplin as the Duke of Buckingham is just the right admixture of randiness and a healthy regard for the penalty that can be incurred by going too far over the edge of conventionality. And Tom Wilkinson as Ned's and then Maria's stage impresario combines business acumen with a soft human touch.
But special kudos go to Clair Danes - this is her best performance to date. She runs the gamut of emotions from helpless subservience to repressive laws to sprightly awakening of her worth to deep confusion about her priorities and needs. She inhabits the role of Maria with skill and grace. An Oscar-worthy display.
The score is fine, briskly and authentically complementing the story. And for the first time ever in a movie a king of England is shown cavorting in the royal rack with his mistress while six adorable King Charles Spaniels look on.
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