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Movie Review: "Stage Beauty"

This British film opened in Chicago yesterday, in only three area theaters, and that's a shame.

First, because the great bulk of the movie-viewing audience won't bother to see a carefully-crafted, well-acted, well-written story like this because it isn't one of the "boobs and bombs" sort of film that seems to be most of what American filmmaking passes for these days (though you do get one peek at Claire Danes' left breast during a scene in which she is sitting for a portrait, and the artist insists that "all the girls do that").

Second, because, well, you ought to see this film, which is based on real people who lived in England around the 1660's, particularly Edward "Ned" Kynaston, who made a good living playing women on stage, which was the fashion in those days, until King Charles II (played way-over-the-top by Rupert Everett) issued a proclamation stating that women should be played by women; in the movie, his mistress, Nell Gwynn, is shown to be responsible for this proclamation, after learning that Maria (Danes), otherwise known as Margaret Hughes, has been secretly playing the same role (Desdemona in Shakespeare's "Othello") that Kenaston is famous for.

In a mostly British cast, the two principal roles are played, and well, by American actors. Kenaston is played by Billy Crudup, who, from his roles in movies such as "Big Fish" and "Almost Famous", would be about the last American actor you'd think would be good in this role, but he's terrific -- hamming it up when he needs to, doing a little gender-bending both on and off-stage, and he and Danes have terrific chemistry.

The settings and the costumes evoke a somewhat seedier era than the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare In Love", which is set about sixty years earlier, and you'll absolutely howl at the way the king and his court are presented. You almost think that John Cleese is going to walk around the corner as the original Minister of Silly Walks.

Finally, this line is priceless. When the king and his ministers are discussing whether or not to grant the right to act on stage to women, one of them points out that the French have allowed such rights for a long while, to which one retorts, "Whenever one is about to do something truly horrible, we always say the French have been doing it for years."

Perfect. This film isn't likely to be in wide release, but it's well worth your time if you can find it in a theater, and if not, rent it when it's out on DVD.

Off to watch the World Series at Mike's. Go Red Sox.

AYRating: *** 1/2