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MOVIE REVIEW

Billy Crudup: 'Stage Beauty' may be only skin deep, but he shines as its lead actress

By strange coincidence, three movies opening in Boston-area theaters today constitute a master class in female acting. There's Imelda Staunton arriving as a cinematic force to be reckoned with in "Vera Drake" and Annette Bening returning as the same in "Being Julia." Both actresses are likely Oscar nominees. Allow me to argue, however, that the most womanly performance of the week belongs to Billy Crudup in "Stage Beauty."

You read that right. As Edward (Ned) Kynaston, the greatest female impersonator of the London stage, Crudup finds creative freedom and deep mis-

chief in the artifices of femininity. He's also pretty cute playing Desdemona in an auburn wig, and he knows it. As tranny acts go, this one's upscale enough to bring your mother along. Richard Eyre's drama is about Restoration theater heroines and the men who play them, and comparisons to "Shakespeare in Love" are inevitable. Unfortunate, too, but we'll get to that in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that "Stage Beauty" has any number of fascinating ideas and no real notion of what to do with them.

Ned Kynaston was a historical personage and, in this telling, the 1660 equivalent of a rock star. The film is set during that huge sigh of relief after 18 years of Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell; King Charles II (Rupert Everett) has scampered back from France with his spaniels and guttersnipe mistress Nell Gwynne (Zoe Tapper) and declared a national party. Theaters and other amusements are flourishing anew, and, as if emerging from a state of suspended animation, male actors are once more taking on female roles, as they have since Elizabethan times.

No one does a better woman than Kynaston, who has trained so long in the arcana of wrist-twirls and "the five poses of feminine subjugation" that he's no longer even certain what gender he is. Man or woman, he's the object of ardor, from naughty Lord Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) to bloated Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), from a pair of upper-class groupies (Alice Eve and Fenella Woolgar) to Ned's dresser Maria (Claire Danes), who worships him from afar. Meanwhile Samuel Pepys (Hugh Bonneville) skulks about jotting everything down in his diary.

Maria has a secret: She's also playing Desdemona, in an underground "Othello" that's the Restoration equivalent of avant-garde warehouse theater. This is against the law; worse, it's in bad taste. "A woman playing a woman -- what's the trick in that?" sniffs Ned.

None, and that's the appeal. "Stage Beauty" is about the moment when Kynaston's world turns upside down -- when King Charles decrees that only women can play women, and the great impersonator finds himself without an identity. It's not a pretty sight; the scene in which he tries to prove he can play Othello as well as any man is a harrowing and grotesque mimicry of male behavior.

Ned is drawn to an idealized femininity, Maria represents the dawn of naturalistic acting, and those are just two of the conceits that lie unplowed and unreaped in "Stage Beauty." Like "Being Julia," the film takes place in a backstage world of illusion and deception, yet it's even more constricted than the Bening film. The few exterior scenes feel like a jailbreak.

Jeffrey Hatcher has adapted the script from his play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," and Eyre, the very respected former director of the Royal National Theatre (and director of "Iris"), has taken the helm. The result plays like a theater person's idea of serious cinema. The camerawork dashes about frenetically while George Fenton's score pokes you in the ribs with its cleverness; except for the sweetly dithery Everett, the cast mills and preens. Danes is particularly pallid, and her emotional scenes with Crudup show little of the fire that apparently set tongues wagging off-camera.

Yet Crudup does good, mercurial work despite a silly surfer-dude haircut; he's attentive to the infinite gradations of gender and play-acting in Ned, and to the tragedy, too. "Stage Beauty" jolts to life toward the end, in an eerie rehearsal scene and performance of the murder sequence from "Othello." (This seems to be the only play ever staged in Restoration London, by the way. Apparently Wycherly and Congreve were still in workshop in 1660.) Such scenes prove that Eyre knows the theater and its mysteries like the back of his hand. It's what's offstage that throws him.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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