Stage Beauty offers sexual politics and proto-feminism for those with a taste for period pieces featuring Claire Danes. That's an admittedly small niche market, but not one without its charms. Based on Jeffrey Hatcher's play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, this melodramatic study of the rise of women's acting (and the subsequent decline of the men who had heretofore played women's parts on stage) in the 17th-century British theater is both interesting and insufferable.
Crudup plays Ned Kynaston, a vainglorious actor who nightly essays the role of Shakespeare's Desdemona, campily twitching her way to the grave beneath Othello's ragged pillow. Kynaston is a star who's enthusiastically courted by both male and female admirers. When not performing or rehearsing, he's bedding the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), although it's not altogether apparent that he's completely gay. When his dresser Maria (Danes) is discovered secretly acting the Desdemona role at a tatty off-off-off-St. Vic's theater nearby, Kynaston's fortunes change nearly overnight as the once-illegal practice of women playing women on the stage is recast as the norm, and men like him are now...men like him.
It's a juicy, reality-driven plot that you'd think would work like a charm, but Stage Beauty falls flat on more than one occasion, despite a charged performance from the sinewy Crudup. Playing a man playing a woman, Crudup nails a complex role that requires him to be both cannily engaging and, later in the film, tortured and vindictive. He throws himself into Kynaston's quandaries with the resourcefulness of an actor gnawing on a meaty bone.