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'STAGE' FRIGHT <br> 'BEAUTY' MISSES THE BIG PICTURE

STAGE BEAUTY **

STARRING: Billy Crudup and Claire Danes

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

RATING: Rated R for sexual content and language

THE LOWDOWN: Historical drama examining the English Restoration.

Few things are sadder than wasted beauty.

In 17th century London, the beauty of would-be actresses was wasted when they were forbidden to perform on the stage. But in 21st century America, all the gorgeous stylistic allure of "Stage Beauty" is wasted on a painfully confused story better left untold.

It's severely disappointing when a film so beautifully crafted -- full of such moving performances and brilliant writing -- misses the big picture.

The film, written first for the stage and adapted to the screen by Jeffrey Hatcher, tells the story of the English Restoration and its effects on London's acting community. In the mid-1600s, King Charles II decreed that female parts in the theater must be played by women, thus leaving the town's stable of male "actresses" out of a craft.

We follow Ned Kynaston, foremost of London's "actoresses" (who tend to resemble the drag queens of today) as he is ejected from his famous role of Desdemona in Shakespeare's "Othello" and replaced by his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes).

At first, we see Kynaston (Billy Crudup of "Big Fish" and "Almost Famous") in a homosexual relationship with a London libertine. But suddenly, after he is vaulted from the main stage and relegated to perform at the equivalent of a drag club, his sexuality becomes ambiguous.

This allows for equally ambiguous sexual encounters between Crudup and Danes, something that the film spends far too much time displaying.

The statement is not that sexual identity politics are free-floating and performative -- noble and correct as that would be -- it's that mainstream audiences respond better to heterosexual sex.

The film does not reserve judgment for gender roles or sexual orientations, as it ought to do, but rather attempts to explain away Kynaston's sexuality as the result of a perverse training process -- therefore classifying it as something outside of the mainstream and opening it to derision and prohibition.

He asks a valid question, one men struggle with today, mostly in private: "You're a man in a woman's form. Or was it the other way around?"

Disregard utterly pointless love scenes between Crudup and Danes and the slow pacing of the last half, however, and the rest of the film is nearly perfect. Performances by Crudup, Ben Chaplin and Richard Griffiths are all Oscar-worthy.

Dialogue that deftly mixes the modern vernacular with that of the Restoration is as hilarious and poignant as anything out of "Shakespeare in Love," and probably more so. One gem:

"Me mum was a whore, me father in the navy," says the mistress of King Charles II (Rupert Everett). "That's why I never do sailors."

Andrew Dunn's cinematography is equally impressive, with the stability of the camera work subtly shifting as the conflict between Kynaston and Maria ebbs and flows.

Echoing the dialogue, the music by George Fenton injects the perfect amount of modernity into traditional music played on period instruments.

It's rare that all these cinematic elements fall together so perfectly. And it's a shame they've gone to waste.

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