Billy Crudup, among the finest contemporary American screen actors, here leaps several bounds beyond his many variations on "the lost, troubled, wandering guy" (World Traveler, Big Fish, etc.) and becomes Edward "Ned" Kynaston, a seventeenth-century Shakespearean actor whose specialty -- whose life, really -- is playing women. When we first meet him, he's a pretty one indeed, all tarted up to play Desdemona in Othello, with nary a campy drag cliché in sight. Still, it's merely a day's work for the transgender star. "Same old things," he mutters to his dutiful dresser Maria (Claire Danes), "but fortunately they keep giving us new audiences."
Kynaston's fame and his very identity are about to meet with challenges that would make RuPaul tremble. As the score by brilliant, prolific composer George Fenton (collaborator with Attenborough, Gilliam and Loach) whips into what sounds like Dead Can Dance playing a hoedown, the actor locks horns -- well, horn, anyway -- with ardent admirers and royalty, like he's anybody's gal. Meanwhile, Maria obviously sustains a major crush on him but also serves her own muse, hustling off to a tatty underground theater to perform as part of a clandestine arts rebellion -- a verboten career move under Restoration laws, since women are firmly banned from the stage. As this fictionalized history unfurls, Charles II (Rupert Everett, The Next Best Thing) repeals the ban, and suddenly Maria is a viable (if severely and humorously challenged) theatrical presence. Kynaston, meanwhile, in the manner of any good cinematic hero, hits the skids, a girly man rendered obsolete by the emergence of actual girly women.
Screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, who adapted his own play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, has done a splendid job of re-creating an entire world from historical fragments -- mostly from the journal jottings by Samuel Pepys (played with zeal by Hugh Bonneville), who called the enigmatic real-life Kynaston "the prettiest woman in the whole house." Hatcher peppers his dramedy with plenty of fanciful characters, from Kynaston's saucy lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), to nervous theater-owner Tom Wilkinson (echoes of Shakespeare in Love) to an outrageous and spiteful patron named Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths, supporting star of the cult hit Withnail & I and the decidedly not-cult Harry Potter films, who here closely resembles a powdered-sugar doughnut). Hatcher and Griffiths bestow upon Sir Charles a wonderfully Wildean wit; even when someone marvels at his peculiarly immediate conjuring of boot-black for a pallid Othello, he quips, "A scuff is a dreadful thing."
Of course, wall-to-wall repartee might please some (my hand is up), but the love story is the central matter here, and it's so manipulative and implausible that one can only shrug and go along with it. Danes seems determined to corner the Paltrow market on cutesy faux-British accents, and her character's tireless support of the liability that is Kynaston feels more than a little forced. We're meant to celebrate her slow commitment to womanhood (she furtively bares a boob for a portrait) while accepting Kynaston's stumbles toward masculinity, but their shared dynamic feels strangely like a PSA for how not to be gay. This may offend many or none (the survey is still out among fag-hag circles), but it definitely clatters in an otherwise harmonious narrative.
Crudup, meanwhile, gives Stage Beauty his all, meaning not only sensational androgyny but a depth of melancholy that recalls his fine work in the moving Waking the Dead, here amplified by greasepaint, wigs and petticoats. Apparently the real Kynaston did go straight (and have six kids), but here it's the character's crisis of identity -- not his sexuality -- that becomes art. If this film is successful -- and it deserves to be -- perhaps similarly themed if more challenging fare, such as Belgian director Gérard Corbiau's Le Roi Danse (The King Is Dancing, his follow-up to the hit castrati film Farinelli), may finally find a distributor in the U.S. That would be just.
Until then, we have this engaging potpourri of royal court intrigues, backstage backstabbing and smoldering Shakespeare, a welcome treat on the big screen. The design is gorgeous, the dialogue delicious and even the supporting characters prove resonant. Playing a pushy mistress, the self-admitted offspring of a whore and a sailor, bright newcomer Zoë Tapper offers, "A man isn't 'ow 'e walks or 'ow 'e speaks -- it's what 'e does!" Sage advice for any fellow, in or out of corset.