From Twelfth Night to Some Like It Hot, cross-dressing has provided rich romantic and comic fodder for theatre and silver screen. Shakespeare In Love is the most obvious antecedent to Richard Eyre's splinter-sharp exploration of love, identity and acting, but even if Stage Beauty qualifies as a rom-com, it's of a distinctly different (a)gender.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his own play, it has similarities to the Bard-in-amour Oscar-winner, for sure. But while being funny, touching and clever, it's also more grown-up and - - because of this - - less (superficially) satisfying.
Billy Crudup's sex-swapping star doesn't know quite who he is or wants to be. Whether he can resolve his confusion or come to terms with it is Stage Beauty's central dilemma. That there's an element of ambiguity come the conclusion means the audience is denied a necessary catharsis, but it's also a credit to the daring and ambition of Eyre's film: it's unafraid to tell a proper, unpredictable story.
Working fiction around a few known facts - - Ned Kynaston (Crudup) was a Restoration star; Margaret Hughes, AKA Maria (Danes), was the first actress on the English stage - - Hatcher and Eyre bring 17th-century London to life, with the director's theatre background lending authenticity to the backstage bitchiness, backslapping and actorly insecurity. The atmosphere is further aided by George Fenton's superb, Celtic-tinged score, while the performances punch all the right buttons.
Danes is technically impressive, if distant. Crudup is excellent, coping with a character whose defining characteristic is his lack of definition, seesawing between barbed wit and wounded yearning. And the supporting cast? Rupert Everett enjoys himself as Charles II, Zoe Tapper is sexy and sparky as his mistress Nell Gwynne and Hugh Bonneville quietly convinces as diarist Samuel Pepys - - a man of whom the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) comments: ""If two mice were fucking in a nutshell, he'd find room to squeeze in and write it down"."
Hardly squeaky clean, then, but that's just as you like it.
A witty, risk-taking period piece whose mood swings and ambiguity impress and unsettle. Just don't expect Shakespeare In Love 2.