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
Sumptuous, passionate, raw - a gorgeous, romantic film
'Without beauty, there's nothing. Who could love that?' (Ned Kynaston, Stage Beauty)
Don't expect an elegant historical romp from Stage Beauty; it's much more than that. Director Richard Eyre (Iris) and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher have loosely interpreted true events to deliver a passionate, romantic journey of gender-bending self-realisation set in the bawdy world of the British Restoration, circa 1660.
In a time when women are banned from acting on stage, King Charles II is on the throne, accompanied everywhere by his vulgar but merry mistress, Nell Gwnn. Meanwhile Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is the most celebrated leading lady of his time. He is adored by his audiences, by his lover and patron the Duke of Buckingham, and secretly loved by his dresser Maria (Claire Danes). But when aspiring actress Maria's illegal performance as Desdemona in Othello triggers royal permission for women to act on stage, Kynaston's fall from grace is swift.
This is an actors' film, where the talents of Danes and in particular, Crudup, shine. (Their remarkable relationship triggered an off-screen romance.) Crudup is taut as the bisexual Kynaston, trained to be a calamity and actress since early adolescence, and emotes powerfully as he struggles with his sexuality and identity in an unfriendly new political landscape. He is alternately a catty drag queen, angry young man and committed thespian, without ever straying beyond credibility. In contrast, Danes is luminous but unsure as Maria. A talented supporting cast includes Rupert Everett, providing comic relief as the languid King, while Ben Chaplin is sensual as the self-serving Duke.
Stage Beauty has been compared to Shakespeare in Love, but although it's less successful, it's far less contrived. Although Stage Beauty is a love story, you don't know how things will resolve. The pace is less brisk than in a more manufactured film, but it's also more realistic, enhanced by production design and costuming which depicts both the grit and the sumptuousness of the time.
While at first the on stage acting grates, it is deliberate. As Stage Beauty progresses, the acting technique evolves to resemble 19th Century Naturalism not true to life, but faithful to the emotional journey of the characters. It's a special film that will take you on an emotional journey too.
**** out of ***** stars.
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