Movie Reviews by Jonathan Harvey and Lisa Henshall
Starring: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Rupert Everett
Director: Richard Eyre
Review by Jonathan Harvey
The parallels are obvious and the comparisons are inevitable – is STAGE BEAUTY just SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE mark II? Well the checklist is all ticked: historical setting, Shakespeare acted out on stage, importing American talent to play the lead(s) and an ensemble cast of British character actors. In fact, Tom Wilkinson’s roles in both films gives a particular sense of deja-vu. But despite the similarities, Richard Eyre’s new movie is certainly more than a carbon copy of the 1998 Oscar-winner and underneath its skin lies a much deeper content.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of his own stage play is interested in the last generation of English male actors who learned the skill of, and earned their living from, acting female theatrical parts on the stage (well, pantomime dames excepted…). When Charles II sanctioned that women could, and indeed must, play the roles of women, these actors had their lives turned upside down, none more so than Ned Kynaston, a true historical figure here played superbly by Billy Crudup. Ned struggles to get to grips with the new law and finds it even harder to bear when his dresser Maria (Claire Danes) decides to try her hand as a thespian and, to start with at least, is terrible at it.
Set a hundred years after Elizabethan times, the reversal of the SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE gender-swapping formula is still clear, but Crudup proves far more adept at the job than Gwyneth Paltrow was. His performance is a real tour de force, and Danes is also impressive in the role of a woman who must learn the craft of acting during the course of the story. It feels like the whole cast enjoyed the film and tacking this material, which examines and revels in the art of acting itself. The tone and direction are well handled in Eyre’s steady hands and the film’s issues are sensitively treated but never allowed to swamp the story. Nor do they prevent a healthy sprinkling of comic moments throughout, most of which are excellently delivered by the ever-dependable Richard Griffiths and Rupert Everett, both in fine form.
If a criticism is to be levelled at the film, it’s that the romance between Ned and Maria does feel levered into the film towards the end to give the story a more conventional feel and the chemistry between the two leads seems to lack that elusive spark, not quite matching as a couple the strength of their individual performances. Whether this may be because of, or despite, the apparent off-screen romance that blossomed between Crudup and Danes during shooting is something to speculate on! But nevertheless, when STAGE BEAUTY is engaged in the telling of what is an interesting and relatively untold historical story, it’s a highly enjoyable watch.
Review by Lisa Henshall
STAGE BEAUTY is like the younger, teenage sister of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE wanting desperately to be taken seriously, yet still wearing an outfit Jordan would have second thoughts about! You’ll either love STAGE BEAUTY for all its quirky, humour and poignant drama, or you’ll walk out after 10 minutes and wonder what the hell you were doing there in the first place! If you can suspend belief and just experience the film, you will love it as much as I did.
It’s set in London’s theatre land during the reign of King Charles II (back from his exile), where England has recently woken up and remembered that it used to have lots of fun before the Puritans ran things. Anyone who’s anyone is out at the theatre hoping to catch a performance by England’s leading lady, Edward ‘Ned’ Kynaston (Billy Crudup)… after all, there’s only so much liberalness one can allow and women on stage simply isn’t the done thing.
If you can get past Billy Crudup in drag (thankfully more THE CRYING GAME than Lilly Savage) then it’s worth the journey as we follow our hero(ine) and his loss of status and celebrity when the King (Rupert Everett), after some athletic persuasion from mistress Nell Gwynne, decides it’s time the law was changed and women were allowed on stage. Enter Ned’s downtrodden costume assistant Maria (Claire Danes) who’s been secretly hankering after her boss and a career as on the stage. But can she cut it?
The film is predominantly a drama and there are moments of real pathos as Ned struggles with his sexual identity and his place in society, unsure whether he will be able to adapt to the new world. There are lighter moments and Hugh Bonneville as Samuel Pepys steals every scene he’s in, and even some he’s not – one bitchy aside from the Duke of Buckingham has it that, “if a squirrel were digging up an acorn, Mr Pepys would find a way to squeeze his way in and write about it!”
However, one scene nearly ruined it for me as the tender romance between Maria and Ned was almost scuppered by a ludicrous sex-scene where she teaches him how to be a man – a bit too hardcore meets ‘carry on’ for my liking, and out of keeping with the historical characteristics of the film up to that point. However, the film redeemed itself with an excellent theatrical climax, where Ned and Maria take to the stage and show the waiting Londoners how Othello and Desdemona ought to be performed. If I’m being honest, I think their performances were even more moving and tender than Messer’s Fiennes and Paltrow in that other film about Shakespeare, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.
I absolutely loved this film and if you didn’t… well then you need to lighten up and enjoy life a bit more!