Actress Claire Danes is no stranger to the works of William Shakespeare. Almost ten years ago she played the title role in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. This time, she tackles Shakespeare as England’s very first actress in the new film Stage Beauty.
In a time when women were not allowed to act on the stage and men played all the female roles, costumer Maria (Claire Danes) must secretly rush off to perform in taverns as a novelty. When her master Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) gets wind of this he is highly insulted. Kynaston has made his life's work on the stage portraying various female roles, and the thought of an actual woman playing a woman revolts him. Kynaston is granted the opportunity to basically tattle tail to the King (Rupert Everett) to stop this injustice. However instead of having Maria's head lopped off right at the dinner table the King decrees that all female parts shall only be played by women. This new law leaves Kynaston penniless and on the street as Maria becomes the new toast of the London stage. Yet when Maria takes on the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello, the only person she can have help tutor her for the part is the one person who made the role famous, Kynaston himself. This leaves Kynaston taking the most important step he has ever taken in his life, to actually be a man.
Filling out the cast with good English character actors makes the two American leads look right at home in their environment. Danes is back actually acting for a change, something she hasn’t done with a lot of feeling since her three-year absence from Hollywood. She was okay in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and did a decent job in Igby Goes Down, but hasn’t really had a good character to sink her teeth into since Brokedown Palace. Much like Gwyneth Paltrow did in Shakespeare in Love, Danes exposes herself for the good of her craft. In no way is it graphic or explicit. Claire’s performance throughout this film makes it seem perfectly normal once we get a peek at her “Great Danes” and you really feel for her character when she actually has to whip them out.
Crudup continues to surprises me. Since he proclaimed himself a “Golden God” in Almost Famous he has taken roles with meat. Rather than go down the road of tedious heart-throb roles he’s done great work in Charlotte Gray and Big Fish, as well as putting together a hugely successful run playing the title role of The Elephant Man on Broadway. Watching his “Kynaston” unravel is a site to see. The little nuances he’s captured, his total ambiguity and his flamboyance is so charismatic that even when you start to despise the character, you can’t keep your eyes off him.
Director Sir Richard Eyre (Iris) creates a rich atmosphere out of Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay. This isn’t one of those pristine period costume dramas. In Stage Beauty’s London is an extremely dirty place. Andrew Dunn’s (The Crucible) cinematography only adds to that grittiness. There are a lot of elements going on behind the scenes here that really make a pretty decent film.
My one gripe is some of the humor in this piece. While the film is often mildly amusing, the jokes sometimes seem slightly out of place. Then again I’m not English, so for all I know it’s comic gold. But, comedy should be funny to all audiences. There are a few chuckles here and there, just to break the tension, but the majority of it had me sitting straight-faced waiting for another Kynaston scene. If these elements of the story were a bit tighter and in a sense, funnier, then this flick would really be great. Sadly the comic relief is a bit of a comic burden.
Still, Stage Beauty is a nice little film about how hard it is to act. It’s also a commentary on what beauty is and what it takes to be a man. Sewing these threads together is no easy task, but it works. It’s a decent film that just missed its shot at being great.