Monday, 14 November 2011


“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” - Oscar Wilde

We watched an interesting and enjoyable film at the weekend, Richard Eyre’s 2004 “Stage Beauty”. This is an English costume drama based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s play “Compleat Female Stage Beauty”. The playwright wrote the screenplay and must have enjoyed transposing his play to the medium of film as the script was most cinematic and did not lose its bite, as plays often do when transported to the silver screen. The film starred several unknown actors (to us at least), the only exception being Ben Chaplin, whom we had seen before in a couple of movies. Nevertheless, they did a very good job, especially the leads, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes playing the restoration actors Kynaston and Maria-alias-Margaret Hughes.

The plot centres on the theatre in England during the reign of Charles II (reigned 1660 to 1685). At that time, by law, all female roles of all plays were to be portrayed by male actors. Acting then was an elaborate and highly artificial art where actors relied on gestures and affectations that would be laughable today in a serious drama, and only at home in the hammed up world of pantomime. The leading figure of that theatrical world was Ned Kynaston who was the most famous Desdemona of his time. In the film, this actor is the darling of all London, but is idolised by his dressing assistant, Maria. Maria is a woman who desires to be an actress but she is not allowed to be as it was illegal. Such is her desire to act that she goes to a second rate company that puts on plays in a pub and emerges as Margaret Hughes, an illicit actress in her own right who will challenge Kynaston’s Desdemona and makes that character, her signature role as well.

The fascination of the film is that it is based on fact, both Kynaston and Hughes were real people who lived in that tumultuous era. Charles II and Nell Gwynn, his mistress, (played with gusto by Rupert Everett and Zoe Tapper respectively) do exemplify the licentious abandon of the Restoration and one can imagine them becoming personally involved in the brou-ha-ha surrounding the Kynaston vs Hughes battle. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, makes an appearance and is played with suitable mousiness by Hugh Bonneville. What makes the film enjoyable is the artistic license taken by the playwright, who weaves his threads of fiction through the threads of fact to create “fact-ion”. There are numerous anachronisms throughout the movie, but one can be forgiving, given the fact that it is such a good story.

The film, despite its levity (it is an amusing “romantic comedy” of sorts), tackles several important topics: Female equality, the concept of sex and gender, sexuality and transvestism, professionalism versus amateurism in art. It also asks the question what it means to be an actor and to what extent one is willing to go in order to achieve one’s dream. Even though many of these questions that the film poses remain as subplots, the matters are raised and the intelligent viewer will look beyond the often farcical triviality of the plot in order to ruminate upon the answers to these questions.

Eyre’s direction is tight and professional and he manages to balance his movie on the razor’s edge between farce and pathos. The cinematography is quite sumptuous and one is transported convincingly to 17th century London. The costumes, settings and even the CGI of some of the aerial shots of Old London are quite spectacular. Overall, this is a fine period piece, which deserved to do much better at the box office than it did. IMDB informs me that the gross takings in the USA were a very modest $776,691 between 10th October 2004 and 28th November 2004!

This is a very worthwhile film to watch and we recommend it most highly. It is amusing and light-hearted, but it does have a bite too, quite a sting in its tail – the last scene in which Desdemona and Othello are acted out by the rivals Hughes and Kynaston is quite remarkable – although not in keeping with the times portrayed!

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a wonderful movie that I am sure I would enjoy seeing. It's on my list and thanks for the review!