A Renaissance drama set during the last days of men playing women in the English theater, "Stage Beauty" is peculiarly out of sync with its own narrative.
Akin to "Shakespeare in Love" and "Girl With a Pearl Earring" in fictionalizing real historical figures, the film stars Billy Crudup ("Almost Famous," "Big Fish") as Ned Kynaston, an acclaimed actor of female roles in the 1650s whose career is ruined by King Charles II's decree reversing Puritan rules that banished actresses from the stage. Claire Danes plays Maria, his devoted dresser who is destined to take his place as the toast of the London theater when she becomes the first woman to take to the boards in 18 years.
It should be an enthralling tale, but too many story elements just don't jibe.
The praise heaped on Kynaston's ability to play feminine seems misplaced. His falsetto and florid mannerisms wouldn't even pass muster with drag queens, and his highly-stylized acting, while perhaps accurate for the period, provides nothing to convince modern audiences of his talent. The innately masculine Crudup is much more convincing out of costume and falling apart as his character panics over his disintegrating career.
Maria's rise to prominence -- under the stage name Mrs. Margaret Hughes, a real actress of the time -- is another stumbling block. She is championed by a corpulent, flamboyant high-society patron (Richard Griffiths, the cruel uncle in the "Harry Potter" movies), shown in an early scene to be quite the pervert. It's impossible to believe he'd be helping her along out of the kindness of his heart, yet the film never addresses in any way what he might be expecting, or receiving, in exchange.
When Maria does break out, playing Desdemona in a production of "Othello" with breathtaking intensity -- at least in her death scene, which the film seems obsessed with repeating -- it's under the guidance of Kynaston, whom she has rescued from a downward spiral into shameful burlesque. But it's curious and incongruous that he could lead her to such a natural performance (she even abandons the greasepaint worn by her co-stars) when he was never capable of the same.
These two characters are the heart of the story, so as their pivotal contradictions go, so goes the movie. While the performances of the picture's two underrated stars are nothing if not compelling (save Crudup's cross-dressing), little else in "Stage Beauty" feels organic -- and especially not an over-staged, over-edited, unintentionally funny love scene between Kynaston and Maria. At times it almost feels as if director Richard Eyre ("Iris") is doing everything he can to make the film seem melodramatic and absurd. Even the score, an electro-Renaissance over-mix of mandolin, harpsichord and fiddle, is conspicuously anomalous.
"Stage Beauty" is propped up by a strong supporting cast including Ben Chaplin ("Murder by Numbers") as the Duke of Buckingham and Kynaston's sometime lover, Tom Wilkinson ("In the Bedroom") as the owner and lead actor at Kynaston's theater, Hugh Bonneville as Samuel Pepys, and especially Rupert Everett as a silly, pompous King Charles and Zoe Tapper as the king's shameless, low-born mistress. This young actress, who was hired straight out of drama school, is phenomenal at showing the shrewd intelligence behind her character's tarty, girlish wiles.
But while it may entertain history buffs curious to see how it bends and blends facts with speculation, the pieces of this period puzzle simply don't fit together the way they should.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Friday 3rd September 2004
Box Office Worldwide: $776.7 thousand
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Richard Eyre
Starring: Derek Hutchinson as Stage Manager, Mark Letheren as Male Emelia/Dickie, Claire Danes as Maria, Billy Crudup as Ned Kynaston, Tom Wilkinson as Betterton, Ben Chaplin as George Villiars, Duke of Buckingham, Hugh Bonneville as Samuel Pepys, Jack Kempton as Call Boy, Fenella Woolgar as Lady Meresvale, David Westhead as Harry, Nick Barber as Nick, Stephen Marcus as Thomas Cockerell, Richard Griffiths as Sir Charles Sedley, Zoe Tapper as Nell Gwynn, Alice Eve as Miss Frayne