It’s the early 1660s in London and Edward Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is England’s most celebrated leading lady. Women have been forbidden by Cromwell to appear on the stage and Ned has become hugely successful, using his androgynous beauty and skill to make female roles his own. But King Charles II has been restored to the throne after exile in France and is tired of the same actors playing the same old tragedies. Why not let real women tread the boards? This is a chance for Maria Hughes (Claire Danes), Ned’s faithful dresser, to fulfil her lifelong ambition to play Othello’s Desdemona on stage.
Stage Beauty is directed by 60-year-old Sir Richard Eyre who is better known as a theatre director and artistic director of the Royal National Theatre Company than as a film director. His last film was the biopic Iris (2001). Stage Beauty is based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher who also adapted the screenplay. The key characters, Edward Kynaston and Maria Hughes, are historical figures. Hatcher happened upon a volume of Samuel Pepys’s diaries and was intrigued by the entries for Kynaston, described by Pepys as the most beautiful woman to tread the English stage. Kynaston also liked to have sex with men and is reputed to have had an affair with Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
American Billy Crudup, who is fairly short and slight, is well cast as the androgynous Ned. Crudup has been acting since he was a child. His last role was in Big Fish but he is better remembered for his roles in Jesus’ Son and Almost Famous. Sadly, his performance in Stage Beauty has been sullied by his off-screen dalliance with co-star Claire Danes. Crudup looks convincing in a frock and the steamy scenes with the Duke of Buckingham, played by Ben Chaplin, are far more convincing than anything he does on set with Claire Danes, who spends most of her time looking stagestruck.
Eyre has filled the supporting roles with a talented ensemble cast including Hugh Bonneville, Tom Wilkinson, Derek Hutchinson, Richard Griffiths and Fenella Woolgar. Rupert Everett steals the film as the foppish Charles II, complete with spaniels and outrageous outfits. Thanks to the support of an outstanding behind-the-scenes team including cinematographer Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park, The Madness Of King George) and production designer Jim Clay (Onegin), the look and feel of the film is rich and authentic.
Stage Beauty doesn’t have much of a narrative and is full of plot holes and more than one historical inaccuracy. However, that said, the film is lightweight fun of the bawdy, camp, frockfest variety that will entertain lovers of costume drama with a twist.