Hey guys -- ever wake up in the morning and forget what it's like to be a man? Do you forget how it feels when testosterone surges through your veins? Do you forget the pleasures of sleeping with women? Me neither. But if you looked like a woman, sounded like a woman, and acted like a woman night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, you might start getting the whole gender thing jumbled.
Edward "Ned" Kynaston (Billy Crudup) encounters that vary problem. Ned is an actor living in the 1660s when women were forbidden to appear on stage. Because women couldn't act, men held the honor of playing women. Thus, Ned is England's most celebrated leading lady, profiting handsomely from his femininity. Currently, he's Desdemona in the Betterton Theatre production of Othello. His career couldn't be better. His co-stars envy him. Audiences adore him. But when King Charles II (Rupert Everett) grows tired of the same old stage routines, Ned gets the surprise of his life.
King Charles wants to see something new, so he decides to lift the 18-year ban against females performing on stage. This is great news for Ned's young dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), who is secretly performing at a grubby tavern in extravagant costumes borrowed from her employer, dreaming of following in his theatrical footsteps. It is not, however, good news for Ned. Almost immediately after King Charles lifts the ban, he's out of a job. What good is a man who plays women character when women themselves can play women characters? As for playing male characters, well, Ned's been playing women for so long, he's simply forgotten what it's like to be a man.
The film is fascinating to watch because it feels a lot like watching theatre, which comes at no surprise since Jeffrey Hatcher adapted the script from his original play Complete Female Stage Beauty. Hatcher's script never settles for one genre; it crisscrosses from romantic drama to quirky comedy. Though, miraculously, Richard Eyre's precise direction holds everything together. He blends eccentric comedy and romantic elements with grace and beauty, and he provides Danes and Crudup ample room to develop masterful chemistry. Throughout the film, they quietly build to their final scenes together, which are among the most intense and captivating moments captured on film this year.
Despite its valiant efforts, however, Stage Beauty never quite persuades us to care about Ned's predicament. The king never tells him to abandon acting altogether. In fact, the king encourages Ned to explore roles appropriate for his gender. It is Ned himself who has such a difficult time adjusting to masculine roles. Though, with a little practice, he could easily deliver a convincing performance as a male (as he proves at the end of the film). So why should we spend two hours of our lives watching an actor make a simple career transition? Stage Beauty does not answer that question, it just shows the heartache Ned experiences during that transition. It's tough feeling sorry for a guy who's constantly feeling sorry for himself.
Additionally, there's just not enough at stake to hold our attention for two hours. Even if Ned has to renounce his acing career, what's the worst that could happen? Ned feels depressed for a while, and then realizes that shit happens and that he needs to start looking for a new job. We do care about the characters; they're well developed, empathetic, and engaging. The film just doesn't provide a reason to believe there is anything major at stake; therefore, it eventually becomes sluggish and boring... that is, until its breathtaking finale.
Stage Beauty certainly isn't bad. It is skillfully crafted, meticulously directed, and brilliantly acted. It's pretty to look at, but it's nothing special to think about. Is the film worth seeing? Not at first run prices. At second run prices, I'd have to calculate the cost of gas.
On DVD, the film is backed by an extensive making-of featurette and a director commentary track.
A dame and a Danes.