Stage Beauty Richard Eyre

For us Theatre and English majors who really know our Elizabethan literature, seeing Shakespeare In Love (despite Tom Stoppard's intervention as co-writer) made us let out a collective "Yeah, whatever." The Virgin Queen and Willie once existed, and that's about it. But with Stage Beauty, director Richard Eyre (Iris) and playwright/screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher save us from a similar devastation of Restoration theatrical history. A quick lesson for those not in the know: fun-loving Charles II reclaimed the British throne in 1660 after pesky puritan Oliver Cromwell led England through over a decade of monarch-less turmoil. Actors and playwrights, deemed whores and convicted of indecency, had been banned from performing for almost 20 years when Charles realised his people needed some diversions. Influenced by his mistress, he also declared that women should finally be able to act professionally. Samuel Pepys, the celebrated diarist, had previously acknowledged that one Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) was the most beautiful woman on stage. Suddenly his career is over and his former dresser Maria (Claire Danes) usurps his position as the female stage star, forcing Ned to discover his masculinity for the first time. Crudup, whom we learn through the educational and surprisingly entertaining "behind the scenes" featurette and director's commentary track is an accomplished Shakespearean actor, and plays both a gorgeous Desdemona and later a passionate Othello. Danes is less effective but their personal chemistry is palatable. (In fact, they each left their long-term relationships during filming.) Backed by a reliable cast of English actors (Tom Wilkinson, Rupert Everett, Ben Chaplin, Richard Griffiths), Stage Beauty is well researched in its script and design but since it doesn't have Shakespeare In Love's cheap entertainment value, it had trouble finding an audience beyond those who "trod the boards" themselves. Though the details sometimes exceed the outcome, its merits are many. (Lions Gate)