The job losses at the beginning of this century and the subsequent need for
retraining is a story with many an individual and family tragedy. A parallel
from 1660 London is the story of one man, a celebrated actor of a time when
the conventions of the theatre didn't allow a woman on stage. The great
female roles, like those out of Shakespeare's works, were all played by men.
Which means that for a male actor with a yearning for stardom, training in
the movements, airs, and mannerisms of women was a matter of great,
years-long devotion. By the time Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) achieved that
place in his country's affections, and became the toast of English royalty,
he was quite beyond any ability to play the role of a man. These males who
played women were specialists.
When we first see Kynaston's dresser, she's not only watching his performance
as Desdemona in Othello from the wings, but she's mouthing his lines. Is she
also his understudy? Or... does this lady harbor the futile hope to one day
play the role?
Where there's a will (and a little money for payoffs) there's a way. In a
clandestine midnight barroom, she does perform it. And, when this criminal
act is discovered, it brings the issue before the consideration of the
only man with the power to change the laws concerning theatre conventions:
that playgoer extraordinaire, King Charles II (foppish and humorous Rupert
Everett). When he reverses the time-honored tradition so as to allow women
to act, it's to the chagrin of his principle advisor (Edward
Fox), to Maria's (now lady Hughes) delight, and to the tragedic undoing of our
previous heroine, Ned Kynaston.
After some tedium getting through all this in an onstage and backstage
recreation of a true story, we get to the core issue of an artist thrown out
of work because he's not prepared to work outside the comfort zone of his
perfected skills--not even when it's a matter of playing his own gender. Add
to that his self identity, which seems to be the matter of thinking of
himself as a woman, in role playing and in real sexual encounters with
Maria's efforts to unteach the poor lad leads to some unique retraining
between the bedsheets, but also on the boards, leading to a grand finale that
is the crowning achievement of a movie that won't appeal to everyone, but
is likely to attract every theatre person in the world. Like dancers who
attend every ballet they can afford, actors everywhere will want to
share in the delight these performers show in their full court fulfillment of
roles as actors and the fears that accompany performance.
The last act in this movie is as good a lesson to laymen on the process of
acting as we're likely to find in the archives. It's an electrifying, if
theatricalized, demonstration of the way in which an actor gains insight and
inspiration for a role from adept direction.
The world of the actor as it goes through a major transformation is the world
of the real actors before us, and both Danes and Crudup showcase how highly
they should be regarded for their own consummate talents. This artfilm is
not likely to elevate their orbits in the commercial universe, but it's solid
work of high calibre. For Danes, it brought to mind her fresh take on Juliet
in Baz Luhrman's 1996 "Romeo + Juliet" while Crudup, with a portfolio of
abject characters ("Jesus' Son", 1999, "World Traveler", 2001) delivers his richest
characterization since his noir western, "Hi-Lo Country" of 1998.
Supporting cast is admirable and tasteful, with Everett as an effusive and
approachable royal, Tom Wilkinson as a theatre owner with scruples, Ben
Chaplin as a patron of the arts balancing lechery with trustworthiness. The
costumery is as lavish as the subject demands; the photography guilty of an
excess of underlighting. Director Richard Eyre deserves pats on the back for
instilling so much life into a difficult subject and especially for leaving
us with an impressive payoff. The dramatized subject of 17th century job
loss and the emotional difficulties of retraining resonates with notable
timeliness in the 21st.
~~ Jules Brenner