Though Stage Beauty dabbles in history, wearing its “period piece” label as a badge of honor, it’s kind of a fraud; its attitudes, its characters, its notions of feminism, are all entirely contemporary. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his own novel and fluidly directed by Richard Eyre (Iris), the film is consistently engaging, and interesting in some tangential ways, but it uses its setting as a gimmick rather than… well, a setting. A casual observer might be fooled into thinking that the movie has a lot on its mind; I think it’s flightier than Eyre and Hatcher would have us believe.
Thankfully, there’s also more here than risible gender politics, and Stage Beauty is at its best when it’s dealing with the nature of theater and the question of truth in performance. The climax, a sort of reversal of Annette Bening’s on-stage histrionics in Being Julia, has genuine force — funny how some of the best work Claire Danes and Billy Crudup have ever done is as Desdemona and Othello — and serves as a stunning counterpoint to the amusing opening scene, in which Crudup does the most hilariously stereotypical Shakespeare imaginable.
It’s all awfully contrived — I’m not sure at what point Crudup’s Ned Kynaston decided he was an Actor with a capital-A — but it’s also fitfully entertaining, for the most part. Crudup handles his tricky role with a measure of grace and a minimum of pointless showboating; all roads from cross-dressing lead to Oscar, apparently, but he at least doesn’t seem to be begging for it. Rupert Everett is unrecognizable and often very funny as the canine-obsessed King Charles II, and Richard Griffiths has fun as the loathsomely hedonistic Sir Charles Sedley. Eyre keeps the camera moving — betraying, perhaps, the film’s faux-period nature — and Stage Beauty zips right along.
What it does not do, sadly, is make a case for itself as a work of any significance, preferring cute turns of phrase to any real insight. When an Kynaston screams at Mariah to recite “the five positions of feminine subjugation,” we laugh, but the scene would have worked better with genuine outrage — we don’t feel it. Lines like “I think you’d be as fine a man as any woman” fly at us to demonstrate how clever the screenwriter is. And the film’s general fondness for its concept grows tiresome — how many times should we really be shown characters absolutely flabbergasted about the notion of a woman performing in a play?
One doesn’t have to be a historian to pick up on the flagrant anachronism inherent in the film’s settings and its politics. Would Danes’ Mariah, a woman in in 1660’s England, really throw a fit of feminist outrage at the prospect of posing for a portrait bare-breasted? Does Mariah’s eventual insistence that Kynaston’s death throes lacked truth because “a woman would fight,” though dramatically effective and appropriate in light of the film’s themes, really make sense? The real world is usually profoundly unimportant to me, but when a movie establishes such a concrete historical context and then proceeds to flagrantly abuse it, it all becomes a little irksome.
But only a little irksome, for the most part; this is winsome, undemanding entertainment, the kind of movie that wins over audiences at pre-screenings and becomes a modest art-house success. It’s sillier than you might think, but maybe more fun, too.