Legit luminary Richard Eyre brings an intimate knowledge of stagecraft and of the intrigues and intricacies of the theater world to “Stage Beauty,” an intelligent and entertaining adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play about a male actor renowned for interpreting women on the 17th century London boards. Inevitably destined for comparison with “Shakespeare in Love,” this skillfully acted, handsomely crafted frock piece toys cleverly with gender confusion and sexual identity but is less driven by its comedic or romantic vocations, making the Lions Gate release more likely to achieve upscale specialty success than broad acceptance.
Hatcher’s “Compleat Female Stage Beauty,” which the playwright adapted for the screen himself, centers around Restoration star Edward “Ned” Kynaston. Little is known about him aside from references in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who called him the most beautiful woman on the London stage. Historical research hints Kynaston was the lover of the Duke of Buckingham and suffered a brutal beating from thugs hired by theater fixture Sir Charles Sedley. The latter was briefly the protector of Margaret Hughes, believed to be the first actress on the English stage, in a production of “Othello.”
Hatcher deftly stitches these elements together in the lively setting of the London legit scene under the patronage of King Charles II. As portrayed here, the flamboyantly theatrical monarch, having returned from a long exile in France and ascended the throne in 1660, was determined to have some fun.
Story opens with spotlight-seeking Ned (Billy Crudup) slaying the audience with his dying Desdemona — much to the resentment of his fellow actors, including theater owner Thomas Betterton (Tom Wilkinson), who plays the Moor. Ned’s devoted dresser Maria (Claire Danes) watches rapt from the wings. When the performance ends, two sexually curious aristocratic ladies request the company of Ned, who’s still in full drag. They whisk him off in their carriage.
The trio encounters Sedley (Richard Griffiths), who mistakes them for whores, getting a not entirely unwelcome surprise when he gropes Ned. The actor’s refusal of the man’s advances, however, earns him a bitter enemy.
Meanwhile, Ned’s absence from the theater allows Maria to borrow his costume and grace the stage of the Cockpit Tavern in an illegal underground production of “Othello.” She performs under her full name, Margaret Hughes. An undistinguished actress, she nonetheless gains instant notoriety, aided by attention from Pepys (Hugh Bonneville). Ned is furious to learn of Maria’s deceit, but the King (Rupert Everett) and his stage-struck lover Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper) are delighted, prompting an immediate decree that women be allowed to appear on stage.
When Ned’s haughtiness angers Nell, the saucy commoner artfully persuades King Charles to ban all men from playing women. Plummeting overnight from fame to misery, Ned is unimpressive in his attempts to play male roles and also loses the attentions of his influential lover and patron, George Villiars (Ben Chaplin).
Ned’s downfall coincides with Maria’s rise, which is conflicted by her unstated love for him. His undignified pleading with the King, and later, his descent to rock bottom in a burlesque pub act touch something in Maria, who removes Ned to a country inn to care for him. But his arrogance gets in the way of her tenderness. When the novelty of women on stage wears off sufficiently to expose Maria as a mediocre actress, Ned is brought in to help make her a convincing Desdemona, finding his own mettle as Othello in the process.
Eyre’s spry direction of the refreshingly literate, witty drama shows a pleasingly light touch and a genuine feel for the bustle, backbiting and rivalry of the theater milieu.
However, the film could have used a steadier fuel supply to the Ned-Maria romance, that shortcoming slightly dulling the final-act payoff despite strong chemistry between Crudup and Danes. A sharper wordsmith might have made more of the seduction scene in which Ned and Maria discuss sexual roles. And too much talky coverage is given to the climactic “Othello” rehearsal; the conclusion might have been better served by cutting more swiftly to the fiery performance and letting the characters’ romantic sparks effect their transformation.
In a delicately measured performance that favors graceful subtlety over campy mannerism, Crudup conveys a nuanced sense of a man struggling to know himself, balancing masculine assertiveness with feminine vulnerability and sensitivity, capped with a droll dose of thespian vanity. And while his cross-dressing character is not exactly bootylicious, the actor’s fine, chiseled features and soulful eyes make him a distinctive-looking woman and lend credence to Ned’s stage success.
Put in the unenviable position of playing second fiddle to her male co-star in terms of feminine allure, Danes is lovely nonetheless. Given her proven facility with Shakespearean dialogue (in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet”), it’s amusing to see the actress blunder through Maria’s initially inept line readings.
Much of the broader humor comes from Everett, at his best in this kind of unrestrained role, mixing superciliousness with frivolity and bawdiness as he struggles to reconcile the King’s sense of duty with his pursuit of pleasure. Griffiths also has fun with porcine fop Sir Charles.
Craft collaborations are first-rate. Jim Clay’s vibrant production design builds a 1660s London of impressive depth and gritty texture, constructed in part on the grounds of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Andrew Dunn’s nimble widescreen lensing brings an invigorating contemporary energy to the period piece, and George Fenton’s rich orchestral score enlivens the action with an occasional rousing Celtic flavor.