Stage Beauty

It's always great watching Billy Crudup act in movies. He has a naturalness about him that allows him to inhabit any role he takes, sometimes disappearing completely. Stage Beauty, based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, takes Crudup's acting to the next level. Stage Beauty takes place in 1660s England, where for years it was illegal for women to act on stage. Thus, men like Ned Kynaston (Crudup, Big Fish, Charlotte Gray) played women on the stage. King Charles II changed this, and the film tracks a somewhat fictional account of the adjustment that everybody needed to undertake. Although the acting is fine (for the most part) and the sets look good, Stage Beauty is a little too modern in its thinking for its own good.

Most of this thinking comes from Claire Danes. People worship Danes (T3: Rise of the Machines, The Hours) for her role on the short-lived, but acclaimed, My So-Called Life. Her career in film is much more spotty. She fares pretty well in small roles, but has yet to show that she can carry a film. Larger roles tend to show her as stiff and wooden, and she has a very large role here. The additional wrinkle is that her character, Maria, cannot act. Danes does a good job of showing Maria's improvement from a bad actor to a good one, but as a good one, she employs techniques used by actors today. Her attitudes towards female equality go further than just wanting women to act, and are much too modern. It is extremely distracting from what Stage Beauty is trying to accomplish.

There is a Shakespeare in Love-quality to Stage Beauty, because of the gender swapping. People pack the houses to watch Kynaston perform, because he is such a beautiful woman. As a female, he has a higher voice, and has exaggerated motions that fit in with what people think women act like. Maria watches from the side, enamored of his performance. She acts illegally on the side, and convinces the King (Rupert Everett, Shrek 2, The Wild Thornberries Movie) through his consort (Zoe Tapper) to issue a decree allowing women to perform. Kynaston now finds himself obsolete. He wants to be a woman on stage, and now has to share it with real women, and worse, Charles II bans men completely from performing as women. Hatcher adapted his own play, and while there are some moments of biting wit, Stage Beauty never decides what it wants to focus on. There is a mixed feel to the film that director Richard Eyre (Iris, Singleton's Pluck) cannot shake.

The Kynaston character is by far the most interesting. He does not want to play men, only women. Everybody knows that on stage, the woman is a man, yet many believe that he is so good that he is actually a she. So is Kynaston a man who wants to be a woman, or is he a woman trapped in a man's body? The fact that he has a male lover muddies the waters even more. Crudup gives a few impassioned speeches near the end as to why he cannot play men, and all of it is believable. Everett is also fun as the bored, slightly annoyed King, and Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) is great at Sir Charles Sedley. However, it is the best material in an otherwise so-so film.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 45 minutes, Rated R for sexual content and language.

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