Upstaged

While Claire Danes and Billy Crudup shine in `Beauty,' the plot feels contrived, the nudity gratuitous.

MovieReview

October 22, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Stage Beauty is about the wonder of live theater and the inevitability of change, about the tragedy of becoming obsolete and the danger of getting what you wish for, about the transcendence of art and the banality of those who think they can dictate its terms. It is also set about three centuries too early and is only about half as scandalous as its makers think it is.

That's a lot to draw from a small, 110-minute movie, but how else can one react to a story that traces the origin of method acting to the 17th century, forces Claire Danes to flash her breast to prove to the world she's a woman and hinges on the whims of a foppish king who makes the right call for the wrong reasons?

It's all very lusty and pleasurable, a rollicking good time. Watching actors in period costumes frolic is always fun; throw in a little transgender confusion and how can you miss? But in the end, viewers are left with a nagging feeling that this was a long way to go for the incongruous pleasure of watching 20th-century method acting on a 17th-century stage.

Billy Crudup stars as Ned Kynaston, the most beautiful woman on the stage in 1660s London (at least according to famed diarist Samuel Pepys). That he's a he is not an issue, given that women are legally excluded from the acting profession, or at least from practicing it in public. Thus is Kynaston, an unregenerate ham for whom the turn of a dying wrist is a show-stopper, able to channel his female side to great effect.

Watching and adoring him from the sidelines is his dresser, Maria (Danes), who fancies him and a stage career for herself. Seeing no chance for the former, she accomplishes the latter by taking part in a play performed in a pub far enough off the beaten track to escape the government's notice. Instead of acting, she merely copies what Kynaston does, even borrowing her employer's wig to wear onstage.

Through a series of convenient incidents, Kynaston makes some powerful enemies, including a lascivious (and seemingly nearsighted) lord and the king's boisterous concubine. With both seeking revenge, they conspire to convince King Charles (Rupert Everett, whining grandly) to not only change the law, but to totally reverse it. And so he does; from now on, not only are women allowed on the stage, but men are prohibited from playing women.

Suddenly, Kynaston has no job and no livelihood; he's played women so long that he can no longer act masculine onstage. Worse, his former employee, Maria, has suddenly become the toast of London.

But Maria, too, faces a terrible dilemma; she's not much of an actress, and it's not going to take long for London audiences to figure that out. What's a usurper to do?

Any fault one finds with Stage Beauty has nothing to do with the leads, both of whom act up a storm. Crudup doesn't exactly make a convincing woman, but then we have the benefit of close-ups, an illusion-breaking innovation unavailable in the 17th century. He does act like a woman, or at least like what popular culture of the time might expect of a woman - mannered and submissive and, perhaps, slightly daft. But Crudup shines brightest when the trappings of Kynaston's art are stripped away, and the character has to act without relying on the fake femininity he's been layering on over the years.

Danes, save for the gratuitous breast flashing, is equally impressive as Maria. Though luminous and always affecting as a younger actor, Danes had begun to slide into a rut onscreen, relying on many of the same mannerisms and facial expressions, regardless of the role. But here, she emerges as confident enough to eschew tricks completely, inhabiting her role with a recklessness that's thrilling to watch and a passion that charges the screen.

If only such good work was in service to a more deserving movie. For much of its length, Stage Beauty (adapted from Jeffrey Hatcher's play Compleat Female Stage Beauty) is a trifling comedy of manners looking for some deeper meaning. It briefly finds it, once Kynaston's character is forced to re-invent himself without the slightest idea how, but then scuttles everything on a concluding act that only makes sense if Kynaston and Maria could somehow peer centuries into the future.

Stage Beauty

Starring Billy Crudup, Claire Danes

Directed by Richard Eyre

Released by Lions Gate Films

Rated R (sexual content and language)

Time 110 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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