2004, UK/Germany/USA, directed by Richard Eyre
There's something almost aggressively cinematic about the opening sequences of Stage Beauty, as if director Richard Eyre is absolutely determined to ensure there's no mistaking that his story, about the London theatre world during the Restoration, is taking place in a different medium. There is a succession of overhead shots, quick cuts, zooms, and a swirling handheld camera in the early going so breathlessly put together that they sometimes distract from what is in many ways an intimate character portrait. As the film progresses, those visual tics gradually become less obvious, allowing the story to breathe at both the intimate and political levels.
Eyre uses the Shakespearean idea that all the world's a stage as a means to explore the social world of Charles II and his court, a conceit that works especially well for an era that is constantly playing at appearances and deceptions; in social London - a strikingly small world - it's never entirely clear where the line between seriousness and masquerade is drawn, and gender roles are perhaps the most ambiguous domain of all. Unfortunately, the film isn't always able to celebrate the ambiguity of that world, constricting gender roles into the moulds of both 2004 and film convention, in ways that sometimes seem untrue to the characters.
The lead actors - Billy Crudup as Ned Kynaston, an actor who specializes in female roles, and Claire Danes as Maria, his dresser and an aspiring actress - are both good, and share a real sense of complicity that gives the final sequences some emotional vigour. Crudup has to learn an entire system of emoting for the seventeenth-century stage, demonstrated in moving ways when he realizes his skills are no longer needed, while Danes has to learn, onscreen, to become a skilled actress (a part that's close to the bone, given that Danes herself hasn't always received rave reviews for her acting work). I couldn't help thinking that Eyre had watched her work with Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet very carefully; he presents Danes's face in very similar ways, even framing one scene with music that recalls the earlier film quite explicitly.