Gender Identity

Shakespeare's in love again.

STAGE BEAUTY: Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on his play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty. Produced by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Hardy Justice. Executive produced by Michael Kuhn, Amir Malin, Rachel Cohen, Richard Eyre, James D. Stern. Cinematography, Andrew Dunn. Editor, Tariq Anwar. Music, George Fenton. Production design, Jim Clay. Costume design, Tim Hatley. Starring Billy Crudup and Claire Danes. With Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin, Hugh Bonneville, Richard Griffiths, Edward Fox and Zoë Tapper. Lions Gate Films, 2004. R. 105 minutes.

Stage and film director Richard Eyre (Iris) and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher have combined their talents to bring to the screen a play about English Restoration theater. When the movie opens, women’s roles were played only by men. It was the law. Puritan Oliver Cromwell had closed all London theaters some years earlier. But with the return of Charles II to the throne, theaters reopened.

Edward Kynaston (Billy Crudup), is an actor who’s made his reputation playing the great women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays, notably the tragic Desdemona in Othello. The renowned diarist of the age, Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville), whose name is pronounced “Peeps,” noted that Kynaston was “the loveliest woman on the stage.”

But by 1662, King Charlie’s girlfriend, theater buff and aspiring “actress,” Nell Gwynn (Zoë Tapper), has persuaded him to allow women onstage once more. This is very bad news for Kynaston.

And more bad news is on the way. The catalyst for the king’s change of heart comes from accounts of a packed-house performance in a tavern by a Mrs. Margaret Hughes (Claire Danes) as Desdemona. Kynaston can barely bear the news that his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), has betrayed him.

The set-up involves all this history, because the king, Nell, Kynaston, Pepys, Hughes and others are based on actual historical figures. This topsy-turvey world of theater is the stage where many of Stage Beauty‘s pivotal moments occur, but not all. Some take place at court, where the king allows the unemployed Kynaston to show that he can act by playing a male role. Humiliating for Kynaston but satisfying for smug fops such as Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), his enemy, the performance brings Maria to tears. Now a romance between Kynaston and his former employee ensues.

Surely you’ve noticed the predicament in Stage Beauty is the inverse of that in Shakespeare in Love. The love affair between Kynaston and Maria aka Mrs. Hughes is slower to catch fire than that of Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and the high-born, cross-dressing stage beauty, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow). While not such a masterful film, Stage Beauty is a thoughtful, delightful romp.

Crudup is one of my favorite actors, because he takes real risks in his roles. Here he allows Kynaston to have a stuffy, mannerly persona when he is dressing in gowns for the stage and to be a warm, human man when he is not. His face lends itself to being seen as female, and Crudup gives a relaxed but not camp impression of a woman.

Danes is excellent in every role she’s played from TV’s “My So Called Life” to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996). It’s good to see her play a romantic lead again. Her intelligence, wit and natural beauty enhance the role of Maria.

The incidental character actors, such as theater manager Thomas Betterton (Tom Wilkinson) and George Villiars, the Duke of Buckingham and Kynaston’s former lover (Ben Chaplin), as well as those already mentioned add immeasurably to the picture of the untidy life of the dilettantes, shallow titles and opportunists of 17th century London.

Opening Dec. 10 at the Bijou, Stage Beauty is an enjoyable feast you don’t want to miss. Highest recommendations.