Cinema Signal:

Restoration Comedy in Performance

. "Stage Beauty"

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 men.

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner

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Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Very well written
This review will influence me to read more by this reviewer
Site rating: 8

I love the paragraphs about what this movie says about acting, and hope I won't find the establishing parts as tedious as the reviewer warns. What I really wonder about, and appreciate that you make it so easy to contact you and say so, is why your review gives it 2/4. The only reason I can think of, besides the slow beginning, is that it's not a date movie. My feeling is, it's the second thing that may have influenced your reviewer into being so modest in praise of excellent work. It sounds to me (I admit that my love for Claire Danes influences me) that you should just give it the 3 or 3.5 it deserves, with a warning that it's an art film. And don't bother doing more than that to placate the commercial universe.

                                                   ~~ J. McCloskey
[Editors note: My thanks to this writer for correcting an error. My rating, indeed, was 3 out of 4, which was on this page from the time it was posted. The wrong rating was indicated in the review listings and that has been corrected.]

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Claire Danes and Billy Crudup
The stage star and his dresser

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