Two fascinating period pieces about British women open in the next few weeks. One is set in the post-WWII convalescence of 1950s London, while the other is set in the post-Oliver Cromwell convalescence of 1660s London. One is a typically impressive showcase for Britain’s top actors, from one of their best-known film directors, Mike Leigh. The other is an international co-production headed by American performers, with Richard Eyre, one of Britain’s best-known stage directors, at the helm. And both take gender oppression as their subjects. The first of these, Vera Drake (whose Triangle release has recently been postponed), has already received great acclaim for its star, Imelda Staunton, in the role of a London cleaning lady who performs illegal abortions on the side. The praise for her and for the film is quite deserved, but it’s the flawed but entertaining and informative Stage Beauty that lingers longer in the memory. The stronger impression of Stage Beauty is partly due to Billy Crudup’s moving turn as a 17th-century drag queen. But there’s more to it. It’s also one of the rare films that attempts to depict the practices of a foreign culture (as Britain four centuries ago was) without condescension or ridicule.
I mentioned at the outset that both Vera Drake and Stage Beauty concern women. That’s actually not quite right, for the title character in the latter film is a man, the man in drag played by Crudup. An opening title tells us that the diarist Samuel Pepys regarded a certain Miss Kynaston as the most beautiful woman in England. This Kynaston, the leading diva on the London stage, specialized in expiring gracefully every night at the hands of Othello, and she happened to be a man. But it wasn’t exactly a secret; indeed, we all learned in high school that Shakespeare’s females were played by boys. Shakespeare in Love treated this historical fact as an excuse for an entirely fanciful film that had little to do with the historical Shakespeare. Stage Beauty may not do greater justice to the real Kynaston, but it feels more accurate in its historical details.
As we may also have learned in school, public entertainments like the theater were banned a generation after the Bard’s death, during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan ascendancy. Accordingly, the film opens in the years following Cromwell’s demise, with England beginning to be merrye againe. The recently crowned King Charles II (Rupert Everett, enjoying himself immensely) is a goof and a rake, and he enjoys the theater. In the privacy of his court, he also enjoys seeing ladies perform–and not Shakespeare and not in costume, either.
Stage Beauty imagines the tipping point at which English theater bade farewell, at long last, to the proscription against women performing on stage, and Kynaston is the last of the breed, soon to be supplanted by Claire Danes’ Maria. The wide-eyed Maria starts out as Kynaston’s costumer, but in classic All About Eve fashion, she really has her eye on Kynaston’s Desdemona moves. In the film’s nicely rendered flourish of Restoration decadence, Kynaston’s penchant for indulging the fancies of horny and curious gentlewomen after his shows gives Maria time to snatch his costume and wig and sneak off to a 17th-century after-hours club, where she performs an illicit version of the Moor’s bride to great underground acclaim. Word of her skills reaches the King, and he decides to lift the ban on women actors.
Throughout Stage Beauty, we learn quite a bit about the theater conventions of that era, including the audience’s habit of interrupting Desdemona’s death scene with applause (which Kynaston acknowledges with a brief roll of her wrist before she resumes playing dead). But what’s most interesting about Stage Beauty is its exploration of how the rapidly dying theatrical conventions of that era provided subterfuge for unorthodox sexual tastes. The notion of homosexuality as an essential identity is a new one, dating to the late 19th century, but the practice of it is as old as humanity. Shakespeare caught the timbre of his times and his theater world in his 20th sonnet: “A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted/ Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion.” In light of Stage Beauty, and of Billy Crudup’s Kynaston, it seems that the Bard is swooning over an actor in drag. The coy sexual practices of this purportedly benighted age can be quite appealing in their very mutability. Man? Woman? Who cares–we’re all wearing masks.
However, Jeffrey Hatcher’s script, adapted from his own play, suggests that the utility of this role playing was limited. For all the gamesmanship, Crudup’s Kynaston is someone we in the 21st century might call a flaming queen. “They say I’m a man in the form of a woman,” he confides to Maria, “but I think it’s the opposite.” Those most benefiting from 17th-century sexual artifice were the rich, privileged men who were in a position to indulge their catholic appetites with a clear conscience, as long as they could tell themselves that the men (and boys) they caressed, fondled, loved and screwed were enacting women (Ben Chaplin appears as just this sort of sugar daddy). Furthermore, this role playing was a game for men only. There were no women on stage and there was no Shakespeare’s sister who ever pined in print for a mistress-master of her passion. And so Stage Beauty ultimately sees the gender breakthrough as a triumph for psychological realism on the stage. In one of the film’s funniest and most revelatory scenes, Claire Danes’ Maria auditions for a role in the soon-to-be-integrated theater. Initially, though, her audition is a disaster, because she makes the mistake of imitating Kynaston’s artificial, aestheticized impressions of feminine physicality.
But for all of the intelligence of Stage Beauty, it’s unfortunately an unsatisfying film. However, the shortcomings are not the fault of Billy Crudup; he has always been a fine, recessive actor and this role is the best performance I’ve ever seen him give. His tendency to hide, to disappear, works beautifully here in his dual role as imperious Miss Kynaston by night and awkward, timorous “Ned” by day. The problem is, he’s virtually the only member of the production investing any serious emotional weight into the project. Everyone else seems to think they’re in Shakespeare in Love: The Restoration. There’s too much running to and fro and too many overfamiliar characters and situations. In its generic form, Stage Beauty is your average backstage comedy (albeit one with its share of good laughs), and as such it doesn’t do justice to Crudup’s grave, haughty and tragic performance. As for Danes, she’s a lovely, appealing performer and I really wanted to like her more than I did, despite several felicitous moments. But her reading of a 17th-century costumer and trailblazing actress is, by film’s end, entirely contemporary–the feminist in her is too eager to stride into the past and set things right.
On this count, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake is a marvel of period verisimilitude, and Imelda Staunton’s reading of the title character is unblemished by anachronistic special pleading. The setting is London after World War II, when the populace is still recovering its bearings from the Blitz and the terrible personal toll the war took. On the surface, Vera is an ordinary cleaning lady, with a regular Joe of a mechanic husband. Their two grown children live with them: hearty, garrulous Sid and mousy Ethel. By any standard, British kitchen sink or another, they’re an exceptionally happy clan–the most pressing problem they face is finding a husband for Ethel (in a performance by Alex Kelly that verges on a Mike Leigh parody).
Leigh, as always, takes his sweet time building up the narrative as we meet a cross section of Vera’s world, including the ailing mother she nurses, the haunted bachelor she hopes will court her daughter, and the wealthy, politically connected family whose house she cleans. All the while, the doughty and cheerful Vera hums and whistles as she goes about her uncomplicated way. So it’s jarring when we meet one of her acquaintances, an unpleasant and bigoted woman named Lily who, it turns out, is a profiteer who procures abortion services for impoverished women. Lily shamelessly pockets as much cash as she can squeeze out of them, and passes the women’s addresses to Vera.
One of this film’s virtues is in its scrupulous attention to historical and technical detail; therefore, we learn that Vera’s technique of choice involves pumping soapy water into the uterus with a rubber syringe, an intervention that reliably induces miscarriage the following day. As far as back alley abortions go, this isn’t as bad as coat hangers, but it leaves the patients at the mercy of their bodies to safely discharge the fetus with no further medical attention. When the inevitable botch-job ends up in the hospital, we have some sympathy for a furious physician who says, “These people must be stopped.” But the good doctor can’t, of course, see the forest for the trees. Unwanted pregnancies are a fact of existence wherever there is sexual intercourse. Leigh devotes considerable time in Vera Drake to a parallel plight of a privileged young woman who becomes pregnant after a rape and navigates herself to a safe, off-the-books abortion at a doctor’s office. For everyone else, there is Vera Drake.
Vera, we’re given to understand, is carrying on an ancient tradition of unlettered women furtively acquiring obstetrics skills in order to attend to each other’s needs in a patriarchal society–indeed, Vera could be a medieval midwife. If Vera sometimes seems too simple and pure to be true (she accepts no money for her services), it’s nonetheless to the credit of Leigh that he eschews abortion-rights soapboxing in favor of an incisive portrait of a modern society that hasn’t quite brought the realities of human sexuality to light.