June 30, 2005
Starring: Derek Hutchinson, Mark Letheren, Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, Jack Kempton, Alice Eve, Fenella Woolgar, David Westhead, Nick Barber, Stephen Marcus, Richard Griffiths, Zoe Tapper, ,
You’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching Shakespeare In Love: Part Deux, as wannabe Claire Danes steals lady-man Billy Crudup’s trademark role when an old law forbidding women to act on stage is thrown out by the king.
A bare few months after its initial cinema release, Stage Beauty had the odd novelty of premiering on terrestrial television before its DVD release. Look closer at the credits and you begin to understand; the film was partially funded by the BBC and, smelling an opportunity to surprise and enthrall Joe public (i.e: show off), they put it on amidst the pre-Christmas flurry of festive films. Whether this hasty decision will have an effect come award season remains to be seen…
Based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s play ‘Complete Female Stage Beauty’, his story was inspired by Samuel Pepys’s observation of a 17th Century aristocrat who declared Ms Kynaston the most beautiful woman on any stage. The twist was that Ms Kynaston was actually a man – as were all female characters on stage at that time, by law. Hatcher takes the idea a step further and has Kynaston’s female assistant Maria (Claire Danes, managing a faultless English accent) end up not only taking Kynaston’s job, but causing the law to be changed by the king (Rupert Everett) so that all women could be allowed to perform legally on stage for the first time.
Richard Eyre’s film bares all the hallmarks of the usual play-to-film adaptation: long monologues, period costumes and a lack of sunlight. Like Hurly Burly, Stage Beauty is a film for people who love the theatre, which is an oxymoron given that most theatregoers don’t go to see films and most cinemagoers don’t go to the theatre. The attempt to meld the two rarely succeeds, no matter how high the quality of acting on display. Witness the recent lukewarm reception of Joel Schumacher’s film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera; one of the most financially successful theatre shows of all time.
So, if not exactly a whizz-bang cinematic extravaganza, Stage Beauty certainly meant hog heaven for its stars, who get to stretch their acting muscles. Danes has a talent when it comes to the bard, having made her name in Romeo and Juliet, and here she’s equally excellent (if not more so) as dreamer Maria, who begins as Kynaston’s assistant learning from him from afar and later becoming a full-blown star in her own right. Crudup gets to cut loose for a change and camp it up in drag – but to say that’s all there is to his character would be sacrilege because underneath the make-up is a tortured soul whose identity is thrown into even deeper turmoil when Danes realises she wants to be more than friends. After years of training to be a lady, Kynaston finds himself struggling to be a man on stage and because he abused his power over the public when he was a big star (in one scene he literally has an audience in the palm of his hand), he has to reap the whirlwind, falling all the way to the bottom. Stage Beauty is a popcorn movie for literary intellectuals built on two wonderful central performances – everyone else may catch themselves looking at their watch every five minutes.
The studio obviously sensed the target audience would predominantly be theatre fans as the brief making of, entitled ‘Setting The Stage’ concentrates on basic interviews with the cast and crew about characterisation and rehearsal. However, we also get an audio commentary from director Richard Eyre, who is every bit as dry as you’d expect. As Kynaston might say: “Tis a travesty!”