Most of the time, "Stage Beauty" lacks the playful wit and verbal banter this sort of material desperately needs (as compared to, say, the multiple-Oscar-winning 1998 film "Shakespeare in Love," which dealt with similar material but with a lighter, considerably more deft touch).
All too often, this period comedy-drama takes itself far too seriously. That includes the performances, which are sometimes so broad and showy that you'd almost swear they came with exclamation points to reinforce the notion that the cast is "acting."
Still, it's not a total loss. There are moments of humor dark humor. And while there might not be nearly enough of them, they keep the movie from being completely unwatchable.
"Stage Beauty" is adapted from Jeffrey Hatcher's stage play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," about cross-dressing male performers in 17th-century England. The most famous of these at least according to this film was Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who was known for playing doomed females in various Shakespearean productions.
Ned has benefited from a law that requires all female parts in stage productions to be played by men. However, there's a new challenge to that law, and it's come from the person he would least expect it from his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), who, unbeknownst to him, has been performing the same parts in tavern productions.
However, when Ned offends King Charles II (Rupert Everett), he suddenly finds himself unable to get stage work. As it turns out, the king has sanctioned Maria's performances. In fact, he's reversed the law, which means it's now illegal for Ned to play a woman onstage.
So much of this film hinges on Crudup. But despite his somewhat slight form and attempted sexual ambiguity, he's not all that convincing. And his performance lacks conviction.
Also, some of the naughtier bits are played with a straight face. Director Richard Eyre never really settles on a tone or the right one for certain parts of the film.
However, the rest of the cast is good, especially Danes. And in support, Tom Wilkinson gives another terrific performance. It's a shame he's so underused here.
"Stage Beauty" is rated R for crude references to sexual functions and body parts (as well as some fairly crude sexual humor), simulated sex and other sexual contact (both straight and gay), scattered use of strong sexual profanity, brief female and partial male nudity, and a scene of violence (a beating). Running time: 105 minutes.