In 1660s London, women were forbidden to perform in the theatre. Stage Beauty tells the story of drag actor Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), described by Samuel Pepys as "the most beautiful woman on the stage", whose life collapses when real women are allowed to compete.

The drama centres around Kynaston's relationship with Maria (Clare Danes), who begins the film as his dresser, but whose dreams of becoming an actress set his downfall in motion.

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The story has obvious echoes of Shakespeare In Love and retains that film's combination of broad humour and theatrical melodrama. The production design is similarly impressive, although budget limitations are occasionally obvious - Charles II's decadent court appears to be a small maisonette.

The film jumps between characters and plots and yet fails to properly develop any of them. We see Maria trying to become an actress, but even she admits that she's dreadful, so it's not clear why we should be rooting for her. As Kynaston loses his celebrity, he becomes unsure of his own gender, but this, too, is unconvincing; isn't he just depressed about not being famous anymore?

Such lack of dramatic focus leads to mixed performances. Crudup is convincingly androgynous, but Danes spends the film impersonating Gwyneth Paltrow. Rupert Everett and newcomer Zoë Tapper have the most fun, going gloriously over the top as Charles II and Nell Gwynn.

Stage Beauty is beautifully dressed, but the directionless screenplay means the 110 minutes pass very slowly.

Reviewed on: 02 Sep 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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Angus Wolfe Murray ***

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