"STAGE BEAUTY" may be set a half-century after the death of William Shakespeare -- the Restoration era of Charles II, to be exact. But its story about a male stage actor (Billy Crudup) who performs Shakespearean female roles and a female ingenue (Claire Danes) who dreams of playing a woman as a woman, is clearly meant to draw the same audiences who responded to "Shakespeare in Love."
But although "Stage Beauty" (directed by Richard Eyre and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his stage play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty") is diverting, it doesn't have the brightness and luster of the 1998 "Shakespeare in Love." This time around, the pretty faces, fine costumes, period-movie jokes and visits from a reigning monarch (in this case, a broad-as-a-barn Rupert Everett) feel imitative and secondhand.
Hatcher introduces some wonderful ideas -- the end of the era of male-as-female performers, the notion of what is male and female, and so forth -- but he does it with blunt, obvious fingers. The writing acts deft and witty, but (not unlike a beardless man pretending to be a tragic heroine), it isn't quite the real thing.
Ned Kynaston (Crudup) is the talk of London with his portrayals of such well-known Shakespearean roles as Desdemona and Ophelia. Delicate, slim and graceful, he makes a classy, if loftily theatrical, female. He's unaware that his dresser, Maria (Danes), borrows his costumes for her own underground performances (female performers are illegal) at the seedy Killigrew's Cockpit Tavern. Right now she's playing Desdemona under the pseudonym Mrs. Margaret Hughes.
Ned learns about Maria's secret life when the two find themselves celebrated as actors at dinner at King Charles II's palace. It seems the king's cockney mistress Nell Gwynn (a pantomimically over-the-top Zoe Tapper) has similar ambitions as an actress and is pushing the king to change the law. When Charles makes a decree that women are now eligible for stage roles, Ned faces the end of his career. He's good at playing women, but he doesn't have the acting chops for other, especially male, roles. He's just a bisexual drag queen now and he's furious at Maria.
Crudup's performance is respectable but not staggering. He's physically authoritative as Ned; he's pretty, slight, suitably emaciated and has that martyrlike thinness of abdomen. But he's not someone to warm up to. The same goes for Danes, who's workmanlike as Maria but not particularly affecting. There's a marquee coldness between them.
They're not helped by Hatcher's script contrivances: Charles the king seems a little socially available to his lesser subjects for the convenience of the story; and the lascivious Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), motivated to revenge when his sexual advances are rebuffed by Ned, is another transparent story device. When the movie dives into the potentially delicious convolutions of Ned having to play a man while Maria must learn to play a female without subconsciously imitating Ned, it never quite gets out alive. In the end, "Stage Beauty" is in over its mediocre head and offers an unintended lesson: Those who repeddle success would be wise to make the copy at least as good (if not better) than the original. Otherwise, they're merely setting themselves up for daunting comparison.
STAGE BEAUTY (R, 105 minutes) -- Contains sexual content, some nudity and obscenity. Area theaters.
which tries, unsuccessfully, to build on the appeal of another period film examining gender roles against a theatrical backdrop, "Shakespeare in Love."