Stage Beauty (2004) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for sexual content, language, and nudity
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Tapper, Richard Griffiths, Hugh Bonneville, Edward Fox
Director: Richard Eyre
Screenplay: Jeffrey Hatcher (from his play, "Compleat Female Stage Beauty")
Review published September 5, 2004

Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his own stage play, "Compleat Female Stage Beauty", Stage Beauty spins a tale of Ned Kynaston (Crudup, Big Fish), one of the most famous, and one of the last, male actors who traditionally played female roles in a time when all stage actors were men, regardless of the gender portrayed.  The events are mostly fictionalized, but the period piece elements are just right, giving us a glimpse into the mind of a man who has played a woman so long, he has forgotten how to be a man.  Kynaston's hand is forces when the king, Charles II (Everett, An Ideal Husband), not only lifts a ban on women from performing on stage, but also imposes a new ban, where all female roles may only be played by women.  This opens the door for Maria (Danes, Terminator 3), a young female actress with lofty ambitions to take over the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare's "Othello", the role that was the crown jewel in Kynaston's repertoire. 

The buzz surrounding Stage Beauty is that it's 2004's Shakespeare in Love, another period stage drama with gender-identity issues, tongue-in-cheek humor, and a whole lot of panache.  Beauty is a bit darker and heavier than that, although it does have its share of humorous moments.  What really sets director Richard Eyre's (Iris) film a cut above comes from the phenomenal performances by Claire Danes and Billy Crudup, who should get a good look come Oscar time. 

Stage Beauty isn't for everyone.  Let's face it -- gender identity flicks aren't high on the favorites lists of most viewers.  Filmed Shakespeare and period dramas scarcely rank higher.  However, Stage Beauty does manage to raise itself above all of this with some modernized (and possibly anachronistic) dialogue, modern acting styles, and even a hip score, blending 17th century sounds with the upbeat tempos of today's rhythms.  It's also quite bawdy, perhaps even vulgar, so don't say you haven't been warned.

I can't say that the struggles of a man who wants to be a woman, or at least wants to be a man playing a woman, is compelling stuff (at least not to me), but combined with the rich costumes, lavish sets, energetic camera work, and two performances that at times are simply electric, Stage Beauty ranks as one of the better films of the year.  Everything flows in exceedingly competent fashion, right up to a memorable ending that is absolutely riveting.  I went into Stage Beauty expecting to bored into a deep slumber and came out energized.  I suspect fans of the leads, Shakespeare, period pieces about the Restoration, and those who just like great performances will be as well.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo