(director: Richard Eyre; screenwriters: from the play by Jeffrey Hatcher Compleat Female Stage Beauty/Jeffrey Hatcher; cinematographer: Andrew Dunn; editor: Tariq Anwar; music: George Fenton; cast: Billy Crudup (Ned Kynaston), Claire Danes (Margaret Hughes, known as young Maria), Rupert Everett (King Charles II), Tom Wilkinson (Thomas Betterton), Ben Chaplin (George Villiars, Duke of Buckingham), Hugh Bonneville (Samuel Pepys), Richard Griffiths (Sir Charles Sedley), Edward Fox (Hyde), Zoë Tapper (Nell Gwynn), Isabella Calthorpe (Lady Jane Bellamy), Stephen Marcus (Thomas Cockerell), Derek Hutchinson (Stage Manager), Mark Letheren (Male Emilia/Dickie); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Hardy Justice/Robert De Niro/Jane Rosenthal; Lions Gate Films; 2004)

“It never amounts to more than middlebrow theater fare.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Theater director Richard Eyre directs with much too much staginess this period costume drama/comedy, that gets the costumes right but forgets about drawing us into the dramatic intimacies. The film is based on the play by Jeffrey Hatcher “Compleat Female Stage Beauty.” Mr. Hatcher also provides the screenplay. It’s a true story that takes liberties with the facts to bend with the contemporary times. It’s set in London during the English Restoration (latter half of the 17th century), when the Catholic Stuarts monarch Charles II (Rupert Everett) was restored to the throne after 20 years of exile in Holland from Puritan rule. Bored with the same old theater, the showy king daringly lifted the ban on women actors playing women. His Higness was influenced by Nell Gwyn (Zoë Tapper), his floozy cockney mistress, who voices ‘girlie issues’ while she talks in a vulgar tongue and her big boobs stick out of her blouse.

Men who played only female roles suddenly found themselves without work and had great difficulty adjusting to the ‘new order’ of playing male roles. Those who couldn’t adjust were forgotten. The film makes a big deal over how these drag performers who learned how to act as females now can’t be men again, while the females now playing females have problems in learning the acting craft once the novelty of seeing women onstage becomes commonplace and their popularity levels off.

Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) was tutored to act only in female parts, and received nation-wide fame for his masterly performances in playing leading ladies, especially as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. The opening scene has him acting out the death scene with Othello, the boss of his stage company, an overbearing Thomas Betterton (Tom Wilkinson), who disturbs him by drowning out his performance. When Kynaston can’t play in drag anymore Betterton cans his ass and his life falls apart in every way, including losing his lover the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). The ambitious Maria (Claire Danes), his former dresser, steals his costume and his part. Later, when she becomes a famous actress and is known as Margaret Hughes, she has a change of tune and acts warmhearted to the now depressed actor. She brings Kynaston back to the theater and teaches him to be a man in bed and on the stage. The homosexual Kynaston at first resists then delights in this transformation to learn how to be a regular joe again after being trained for most of his life to think of himself as a woman. What this transformation means, speaks volumes about how reactionary this film is about one’s sexual orientation.

Though competently performed (Danes had a few problems with her Brit accent, but not enough to ruin her performance), it still left me unappreciative of its starchy sexual politics, its hardly riveting identity crisis situation it introduces for those in drag and its typical underdog story with a formulaic upbeat ending (in this case the miscast actors coming up with a winning performance in Othello, as Crudup is now an obscure figure who can’t play his legendary Desdemona but must learn how to play Othello and Danes must learn to emote as Desdemona–this takes place as King Charles 11 sits in the audience thrilled with the surprise performances, as the death scene was startlingly more real than any other he witnessed). It never amounts to more than middlebrow theater fare; not really connecting with me in the same way as the much more endearing Shakespeare in Love did in its backstage look.

Stage Beauty