There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
It’s Restoration-era England, and Ned Kynaston has just lost his job by fiat. Egged on by protofeminist paramour Nell Gwynn, the hedonist King Charles II has rescinded the law that’s kept women off the public stages—and worse, he’s forbidden female roles to men, including Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the glamorous bisexual who’s long ruled the drag-role roost. The pre-eminent Desdemona one minute, Kynaston is a nobody the next, and in the star’s spotlight now is his ambitious dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), an entirely incompetent actor but enough of a curiosity to attract an audience. Out of a job, out of royal favor, and abandoned by the blue-blood lover who was into the illusion but not the man behind it, Kynaston does what you’d expect any washed-up thespian to do: become a drama coach. To Maria. With whom he discovers the cathartic power of Method acting both onstage and between the sheets. Richard Eyre’s sumptuous charcoal-and-tempera film, based on a play by Jeffrey Hatcher, riffs interestingly enough on theatrical craft and sexual politics—there are worlds to say about social surfaces, dramatic realism, and the performative nature of gender in the two words of Stage Beauty’s title alone—but as movies go, it’s an unwieldy thing: one part each psychological drama, pseudo-documentary, and unlikely love/hate story. Crudup is just off-level enough to be intriguing in the film’s first two thirds, but he’s at his best in a wrenching public-breakdown scene in which his character tries desperately to banish those carefully honed “feminine” mannerisms during a potentially career-saving audition for the title role in Othello. Danes, by contrast, never quite surmounts the obstacle of Maria, a scheming betrayer we’re supposed to embrace. And, as will often happen in overupholstered costume dramas starring young Americans, Rupert Everett (a charmingly spaniel-eyed Charles) and a handful of other Brits steal the focus every time they walk onscreen. But it’s in reaching for what feels like an unearned happy ending that the film really fails: Ultimately, Stage Beauty isn’t much more persuasive than the stylized stagecraft that dies with Kynaston’s first career.—Trey Graham