Stage Beauty Review
London, the 1660s. The Merry Monarch, Charles II (Rupert Everett), has re-opened the theatres, and the most celebrated beauty on the London Stage is Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), famed for his portrayal of Desdemona in Othello. Richard Eyre’s new film looks sexual identity, theatricality, and the nature of celebrity in a rapidly changing world.
Ned Kynaston, a young man with cheekbones to die for, is renowned in London for his acting and his beauty, and is the mistress of the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin). Women have been banned from the stage for years and pretty boys are apprenticed to theatre owners to learn stagecraft and female roles. Maria (Claire Danes), Kynaston’s dresser and confidante, watches him avidly and knows every line, every gesture, off by heart. So when she is offered the chance to play Desdemona on stage, she grabs it with both hands.
A woman playing a woman causes a sensation and a scandal; Kynaston dismisses it as a novelty but society is thrilled and titillated. Nell Gwynne (Zoe Tapper), Charles’ mistress and wannabe actress, takes up the female cause and uses her wits to persuade Charles to ban men from the stage. Kynaston is aghast. His livelihood is destroyed and his whole identity compromised. He has never had to be a man and doesn’t know how. Taking to drink, he is reduced to performing bawdy songs in a tavern, while Maria, now known as Mrs Margaret Hughes, is feted by society, despite her astonishing lack of talent.
Based on a true story, Stage Beauty is a sumptuous, beautifully shot, moving romance. Though the overall tone is comic there is a dark heart to the story that grounds the film in reality, in studying a man who has no idea who he is. Kynaston is a cipher, a blank. His lover, the Duke of Buckingham, makes him wear a long blonde wig when they sleep together, and cruelly casts him off when he’s dressed as a man. His pain and distress is most sharply revealed when challenged to act as a man, to play the part of Othello for an audience. After years of having his masculine identity beaten out of him, he physically can’t, and it’s tragic to watch.
The script and performances are uniformly elegant, with Billy Crudup standing out as Ned. He has to be both man and woman, performing 17th Century Shakespeare kabuki style with an English accent. Its great to see Claire Danes return to form here, giving her best performance since Romeo and Juliet, turning in a convincing English accent and having to act both badly and very, very well. It also features a host of British acting talent including Tom Wilkinson, Richard Griffiths, Hugh Bonneville and Edward Fox.
The art direction and cinematography are lovely. Though clearly made on a smallish budget the film succeeds in creating a sense of the period: the cramped smelliness of London before the Great Fire, all smoke-blackened beams and heaps of dung (though the excellence of people’s teeth is a bit suspect) contrasted with the elegance of Whitehall, teeming with beribboned King Charles spaniels. The costumes are also fabulous and symbolic; Maria goes from wearing simple linen, her hair in a bun, to silk and lace and pearls in her elaborate coiffure when she goes up the ladder from dresser to acclaimed actress, while Kynaston, so fantastically dressed as a woman, wears Quakerishly dull clothes as a man.
For nitpickers, Stage Beauty contains some historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (Nell Gwynne was apparently about 8 in 1660, and Charles II wasn’t that much of a perv) but it’s easy to overlook this and be swept away. And though the film ends on an ambiguous note, the real Ned Kynaston apparently successfully turned to acting in male parts and eventually married.
It’s also the only film, as far as I know, to feature a merkin.
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