Set in 1660s England, when women were forbidden to act on the stage, Billy Crudup portrays Ned Kynaston, a real person who was renowned as the finest “actress” of his day. He was also the last of his kind, put out of a job when King Charles II (a terrific Rupert Everett) decreed that women should be given the opportunity to portray themselves in the theatre, banning men from playing female roles.
This causes a dilemma and an opportunity. Ned is at a loss–all he’s ever known is how to act like a woman. He’s got the head tilt, the eyes, the intonation, and the “five gestures of female supplication” down pat. Not to mention, he looks great in a dress. His dresser Maria (Claire Danes, who’s fantastic) on the other hand, has been waiting in the wings, dreaming of her chance to act, and this is it. Circumstances transform her into a star, though not a great actress. Yet.
Together, these two characters rediscover themselves against a backdrop of theatre undergoing a sea change. The filmmakers have taken a number of liberties with history–especially in accentuating a radical change in acting style that didn’t occur until centuries later–which allows the film to culminate in a riveting performance from Shakespeare’s Othello. [****]