For a film to be intospective and universal, it requires a common language.

Stage Beauty, directed by the revered ex-boss of the Royal National Theatre, speaks in luvvy tongues, albeit an outdated variety. As a result, it feels alienated by the nature of its concerns, as if locked in a fancy dress trunk.

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To be or not to be a woman, that is the question. In the mid 17th century, men played women's parts on stage. Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) had the reputation of being, in the words of Samuel Pepys, "the loveliest lady I did ever see in all my life," as well as the best Desdemona in town. When Charles II (Rupert Everett), egged on by the vivacious Cokney sparrow Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper), changed the law to allow women to be performed by women, Kynaston's career was doomed. He didn't know how to act a man.

Unlike the more conventional Shakespeare In Love, what is happening here is not a cross dressed historical romp, but a psychological whodunit, involving the mystery of gender. The film is thespian-orientated and claustrophobic. There are few scenes outside the confines of the actors' workplace and lengthly discourses on how to die on stage, with style.

Kynaston's sexual confusion should be at the centre, but other distractions intervene, in the form of Maria (Claire Danes), his dresser, who performs clandestine Shakespearean heroines on the sly, Pepys (Hugh Bonneville) who is constantly dropping in with notebook at the ready and, of course, the king, impetuous, pampered and surrounded by spaniels.

This should make for a vivid canvas, but doesn't, because the politics of theatre management, circa 1660, has a limited appeal to those who stand outside. The performances, as you would expect from a Richard Eyre production, are enthralling.

Crudup (Jesus' Son), who has always appeared emotionally exposed as an actor, brings to Kynaston a troubled beauty. Danes could have been Gwyneth Paltrow with another flawless English accent, only her honesty is even more pronounced. Everett loves showing off and wallows in the attention as a vain, foolish monarch. It is Richard Griffiths, as the impresario Sir Charles Sedley, who best reflects the manipulative, ruthless, witty affectations of the times.

Ironically, there is a love scene between Kynaston and Maria, in which gender roles are teasingly switched, that must be one of the most erotic screen shags in recent memory. Of course, care must be taken. With theatre folk, you never know when they're faking it.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2004
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To be or not to be a woman on the London stage, circa Pepys, Charles II and 1660.
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David Haviland **1/2

Director: Richard Eyre

Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher

Starring: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Ben Chaplin, Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Edward Fox, Richard Griffiths, Zoe Tapper, Alice Eve

Year: 2004

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/US


EIFF 2004

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If you like this, try:

The Last Mistress
Shakespeare In Love