Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Stage Beauty
UK (UK-US) 2004 : Richard EYRE : 110 mins
London, the 1660s. Ned Kynaston (buff-but-sinewy Billy Crudup) is the nation’s most famous actor, renowned for his interpretations of Shakespeare heroines. It’s still illegal for any woman to appear on stage, but certain intrepid females risk arrest by acting in underground productions ‘staged’ in out-of-the-way pubs. These pioneers include Kynaston’s own dresser Maria (Claire Danes), who borrows her employer’s frocks to play Desdemona at the Cockpit Tavern. Word of this new sensation soon spreads, attracting illustrious patrons like Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville) – and even an incognito King Charles II (Rupert Everett) and Nell Gwyn (Zoe Tapper). The capricious monarch is sufficiently amused to issue a decree allowing women to appear on stage – with unexpectedly dire consequences for Kynaston…
Stage Beauty serves nicely as a post-Restoration counterpoint to Shakespeare in Love: both are middlebrow costume romps, competently directed from wittily literate scripts, sensibly backing up their female American leads with a gallery of rock-solid British thespians. Alongside Everett (a definitive Charles II?) and the movie-stealing Bonneville, Richard Griffiths shines as a periwigged fop (“a scuff, sir, is a dreadful thing”). Adapting his own Compleat Female Stage Beauty (first performed in 1999, the year Shakespeare pinched the Best Picture Oscar) American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher provides these luminaries with sufficiently lively characterisations, dialogue and situations for the first hour to barrel jauntily along – though theatre-veteran Eyre’s directing style is decidedly of the old-school, safe-pair-of-hands variety.
After halfway, the script’s explorations of issues of sexuality and identity tend increasingly towards the clunky and verbose, with the crucial relationship between the ostensibly gay Ned and the besotted Maria often as fuzzy as Andrew Davis’s distractingly soft-focus cinematography. Having deployed dramatic licence to play fast and loose with the historical facts, meanwhile, Hatcher finally then takes off into more fanciful realms with an extended on-stage Othello climax in which Ned and Maria transcend their era’s hammy acting style and discover something closer to 20th century Actors’ Studio-style ‘realism.’ In theory, this should be a laughably implausible contrivance – but Danes and Crudup somehow pull it off, belatedly getting Stage Beauty back to an even keel.
23rd August, 2004
(seen 5th June : Vue, Leicester : press show – CinemaDays event)
by Neil Young