Stage Beauty Movie Review

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.

Comments

Stage Beauty Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, NY/LA: Friday, October 8, 2004<br> LIMITED: Friday, October 15, 2004<br> EXPANDS: Friday, October 22, 2004

Advertisement

More Billy Crudup

Blood Ties Movie Review

While the story centres on twisted moral dilemmas, this 1970s-set thriller takes such a hesitant, internalised approach that if never lets viewers under the characters'...

A Week In Movies: Stiller and Williams film in rainy London, while trailers debut for Brosnan, Owen, Rio and Maleficent

In the lull between big awards shows, media attention turns to Super Bowl halftime performances and adverts, while award-nominated actors and filmmakers travel around the...

Blood Ties Trailer

Frank is a remarkable cop with a lot to look forward to in his life, but as happy as he is, he still has major...

The Watch Movie Review

You'd think that a film written by Stern (the surprisingly witty Mr Popper's Penguins) and Rogen/Goldberg (the hilarious Superbad and Pineapple Express) and starring a...

Advertisement

The Watch Trailer

The Watch are Costco manager Evan, father of a teenage daughter Bob, police reject Franklin and Jamarcus who seeks the love of a beautiful woman....

Neighborhood Watch Trailer

Evan Trautwig is a manager at Costco. One day, his friend, who is a security guard, is murdered. After the police fail to find his...

Thin Ice Trailer

Mickey Prohaska is a small time insurance agent living in Wisconsin. He has grown apart from his wife, Jo Ann and is hoping that his...

Eat Pray Love Trailer

Liz Gilbert always thought that being successful in her work and home life would be enough to keep her content throughout her life but can't...

Advertisement