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A quick history lesson; back in the 17th Century, it was illegal for any woman to perform in the theatre. The result of this law was that all parts, including those of the female variety, were played by male actors. Referred to as the 'prettiest woman on the London Stage' by Samuel Pepys, one of the last 'male actresses' was Ned Kynaston. This film, based on the stage play Compleat Female Stage Beauty tells his -heavily dramatised- tale.  

Stage Beauty
Film
Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is one of London's premier celebrities. As an actor who specialises in female roles, he's the idol of his audiences and the envy of his peers. All this is set to change when King Charles II (Rupert Everett) plans to allow women the opportunity to perform on stage. Ned is understandably horrified; he has spent his career as a 'woman', which has led to gender confusion in his private life. While this could spell the end of his profession, one person who isn't so glum is stage-hand Maria (Clare Danes), who plans to emulate Ned's performance and become a star in her own right. Unfortunately, Maria fails to convince as Shakespeare's tragic heroine Desdemona and so the pair reach a compromise; if Maria can teach Ned how to be a man, maybe Ned can show Maria how to be a woman...

Those viewers who are seemingly allergic to 'historical pieces' should rest assured that Stage Beauty is, first and foremost, a comedy. While the film is never hilarious, it is held together by sheer charm and efficient pacing. There's a large amount of bawdy humour and a good amount of wit generated from a group of ultimately flawed characters. Top of the list is surely Rupert Everett's portrayal as King Charles II, presented here as a lecherous old swine heavily dominated by his mistress. Characters such as this tread a fine line; straying close to becoming Carry On style caricatures, but Stage Beauty never over-steps the mark. In lesser hands, the characters could become over-shadowed by the less attractive aspects of their personalities but, to his credit, director Richard Eyre never invites you to dislike an individual. This is 'warts and all', yet the tone of the film stops things from becoming too heavy-handed.  

There's no denying that there are echoes of another film here and, if you haven't guessed by now, that film is Shakespeare in Love. Fortunately, Stage Beauty is not nearly as glossy as that over-rated feature and, armed with a fairly sophisticated plot on gender confusion, allows for more dramatic sequences than John Madden's 1998 Oscar winner.

Stage Beauty
The cast all perform admirably, but we should save the plaudits for Billy Crudup who gives a truly memorable performance. Firstly there's the role of the feminine Ned which would be a stretch for most actors, but throw in the fact that Ned must perform as Desdemona and Othello, and you are left with something truly impressive. Crudup was last seen in one of the few straight roles in Tim Burton's Big Fish and, if Stage Beauty indicates anything, it's that Crudup is capable of so much more. Predictably, love blossoms between Danes' and Crudup's character and, while the love-story is underdeveloped due to a slender running time, it's dealt with effectively by both actors.

Stage Beauty is distinctly above average, but lacks a certain something that contributed to its relative failure at the cinema. As a comedy, there are far too few laughs and, as a dramatic study of gender confusion, there's a lack of depth as the love-story gets in the way. For those willing to put these qualms aside, there is much to enjoy and this is certainly a movie that is worthy of repeat viewings.

Video
In the Commentary, director Richard Eyre explains that it was his intention to have the sets as realistically lit as possible and, because of this, the video quality comes under constant scrutiny due to the sheer volume of different shades on display. Well-lit daytime scenes often appear hazy, while the theatre scenes supposedly lit by candles have an orange tint. A common complaint throughout is a lack of sharpness and clarity, whether the action is taking place within the confines of the theatre set or on location. The film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer.

Stage Beauty
Audio
The fact that, in terms of action, this is a fairly subdued feature, means that the audio track is not called upon to do anything too ambitious. One could query the presence of a contemporary-sounding score on a film set in the 17th Century, but there's no denying that it sounds good when pumped through five channels. Directional-effects are kept to a minimum but dialogue is well handled by the 5.1 mix. It's a satisfying result throughout.

Extras
Hidden away in the audio settings is the Director's Commentary. Richard Eyre offers an eloquent chat-track which covers a range of aspects within the film-making process, even offering a little background to the theatre setting. Pesky pauses are few and far between. The increasingly common Audio Descriptive Track is also included.

A growing irritation with DVD featurettes is the editor's insistence on including endless clips from the film. Sometimes this means the featurette is merely a pre-cinema marketing tool that has been dumped lazily onto the DVD, but often it means that it's there to beef up an otherwise short collection of interviews. Either way, there's fortunately a complete absence of them in Setting the Stage: A Behind the Scenes Look At Stage Beauty. Most of the key figures behind the film (including Danes, Crudup and Eyre) were interviewed during the making of the film and, since this wasn't conducted during the incessant round of PR as the film reached Cinemas, they're enthusiastic about the subject matter and offer good insight into the making of the movie.

The Trailer has also been included. It's a pretty good one with a nice bit of editing that, nevertheless, failed to excite the masses. Further trailers (and some wholly unnecessary adverts) are included at the beginning of the DVD.  

Stage Beauty
Overall
<i/>Stage Beauty[/i] was mostly ignored when it reached cinemas both here and in the States. This is a shame, because it has much to offer to selected audiences. A new lease of life could have been prompted with the arrival of this DVD but, alas, this relatively low-profile release will probably go unnoticed. A short list of extras usually denotes a touch of apathy from the studios which would prefer to dedicate their time to beefing up the DVDs of misfiring action movies. Stage Beauty is something completely different- and there's nothing wrong with that.


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