Billy Crudup, among the finest contemporary American screen actors, here leaps beyond his many variations on the lost, troubled, wandering guy (World Traveler, Big Fish) and becomes Edward "Ned" Kynaston, a 17th-century Shakespearean actor whose specialty -- whose life, really -- is playing women. When we first meet him, he's a pretty one indeed, all tarted up to play Desdemona in Othello, with nary a campy drag cliché in sight. Still, it's merely a day's work for the transgender star. "Same old things," he mutters to his dutiful dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), "but fortunately they keep giving us new audiences."
Kynaston's fame and his very identity are about to meet with challenges that would make RuPaul tremble. The actor locks horns -- well, horn, anyway -- with ardent admirers and royalty like he's anybody's gal. Maria obviously sustains a major crush on him, but she also serves her own muse, hustling off to a tatty underground theater to perform as part of a clandestine arts rebellion -- a verboten career move under Restoration laws that ban women from the stage. As this fictionalized history unfurls, Charles II (Rupert Everett) repeals the ban, and suddenly Maria is a viable (if severely and humorously challenged) theatrical presence. Kynaston, meanwhile, in the manner of any good cinematic hero, hits the skids, a girly man rendered obsolete by the emergence of actual girly women.
Screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, adapting his play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, does a splendid job of re-creating an entire world from historical fragments, mostly from the journals of Samuel Pepys (played with zeal by Hugh Bonneville), who called the enigmatic real-life Kynaston "the prettiest woman in the whole house." Hatcher populates his dramedy with plenty of fanciful, witty characters, from Kynaston's saucy lover, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), to nervous theater owner Tom Wilkinson (echoes of Shakespeare in Love) to a spiteful patron named Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths, resembling a powdered-sugar doughnut).
Of course, wall-to-wall repartee might please some (my hand is up), but the love story is the central matter here, and it's so manipulative and implausible that one can only shrug and go along with it. Danes seems determined to corner the Paltrow market on cutesy faux-British accents, and her character's tireless support of the liability that is Kynaston feels more than a little forced.
Crudup, meanwhile, gives Stage Beauty his all, meaning not only sensational androgyny but a depth of melancholy that recalls his fine work in the moving Waking the Dead. Apparently the real Kynaston did go straight (and have six kids), but here it's the character's crisis of identity -- not his sexuality -- that becomes art.