Stage Beauty is historical fiction with modern sensibilities. Review by S.K. Slevinski

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This film, directed by Richard Eyre, creates a fascinating world by speculating on eighteenth century English theatre culture, and creates intriguing characters in the processes.

Stage Beauty is set in a fictionalized eighteenth century England, which means that the creators took what they knew of the time period, and filled in the details where they had nothing to go on by imagining a more fully realized world (for example, the tableau-style of stage acting was invented from the filmmakers' imaginations). A few characters, including King Charles and main character Edward Knyaston, were based upon historical records of real people, but the events of the film in which they appear (especially where they appear together) are not necessarily from historical evidence, but invented for the sake of the story. The film, however, is grounded in historical fact—a record survives indicating that Knyaston was one of the most renowned actors on the English stage. Renowned for the difficult task of playing women convincingly. Hailed by historical record as the most beautiful woman on the London stage, Kynaston—in the film as well—has made a name for himself playing Shakespearean greats: Desdemona, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth. However, when the King declares that the ban on female actors is lifted—and moreover, male actors are prohibited from playing female parts—Knyaston is left in a lurch. He watches his dresser rise to stardom as the first female actor on the London stage, and finds himself out-of-work, his previous devotees turned to enemies. Knyaston, who spent his life in rigorous training to become an actor of female characters, finds himself unable even to play men. Nor does he harbor much desire to play men, claiming there is not art or beauty in playing men. As the female-on-stage craze grows in England, Knyaston's dresser finds that she isn't actually a good actress and that the novelty of her revolutionary performance has worn off. Can she mount a comeback with Knyaston's help? She'll have to find him first.

I found Stage Beauty to be an intriguing piece of historical fiction. While the film's speculations on London culture in this time period are fascinating, the most engaging part of the film is the main characters. The film ultimately serves their stories, addressing their fundamental questions of identity through the artifice of the London stage. The path of these characters is surprising, but well-earned by the script—and the actors. Billy Crudup plays the range of Knyaston with aplomb, from bold confidence to shattered withdrawal. Claire Danes is perfect as the kind-of-flighty but driven dresser turned actress. The characters in this film are many-layered and audiences will enjoy watching their story unfold. The film is, indeed, the main attraction of the DVD. In the way of special features, this disc provides a making-of documentary with insights into the thought process behind the film and many of the historical manipulations mentioned above. It does not, unfortunately, contain a commentary track by the producers or director, which was a disappointment.

I applaud the filmmakers of Stage Beauty for creating a historical fiction piece where the characters hold center stage. Audiences will find these characters to be both an interesting glimpse into the past, but accessible in their modern sensibilities—this is not your typically stuffy period piece by any means.

S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.

Alternative Reality Web Zine: ISSN# 1559-3037

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