Before major motion pictures, the world had silent movies, and before that, we had plays, a medium of art which has, thankfully, withstood the test of time. In 17-century England, women were not allowed to be in those plays, so women’s parts were all played by men. In this period drama, we catch a glimpse of the end of one era, and the beginning of another.
Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is the leading “lady” du jour. He’s become famous for playing women with not only grace and dignity, but also the overly-dramatic, manufactured weakness which he deems to be a hallmark of femininity. His most celebrated role is as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. Ned’s dresser (that’s an old-timey stylist) is a woman named Maria (Claire Danes), who dreams of being onstage herself, but knows that such a thing is forbidden by law, and thus lives vicariously through Ned, which whom she is also in love.
Ned has no problem attracting men and women alike and his life is filled with fans and lovers. Puritanical laws about propriety have displaced women from the stage while making it easier for pretty men like him to shine. While he takes the public stage, Maria, under the pseudonym Margaret Hughes, performs illegally at her local tavern.
Maria attracts some positive attention, notably from Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), whom introduces her to King Charles II (Rupert Everett). Once Ned learns that these men of power are actually entertaining the idea of women on stage, he goes into a rant, which falls on the ears of the King’s mistress, Nell (Zoe Tapper), who then wields her own power over the King and seduces him into banning men from playing women’s roles.
It’s a whole new world now, with Maria at center stage and Ned forced to help her. Maria must become Desdemona with the temperamental King in the audience, and learn in front of an audience of hundreds, if she has any true talent.
Stage Beauty gives us a heavily nuanced look at the cusp of a radical social evolution. As we watch Ned and Maria navigate social norms, sexuality, privilege, dual identity, and gender stereotypes, we see these two evolve. Ned becomes a man who stops stereotyping women long enough to learn of their struggles, and actually care, and Maria steps out of his shadow and allows herself to shine.
I give this one 4.25 stars.