Richard Eyre ”s 2004 film, with a wonderful screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, is a gem which still never seems to get the acclaim it deserves. I’ve never been quite sure why.
The 17th century has often been mined for parody (think Blackadder, Monty Python etc) but this film, while often bawdy and hilarious, is exploratory – it takes on themes such as class, sexual orientation and the nature of performance.
Billy Crudup portrays Edward Kynaston, darling of the London theatre. His role as Desdemona in Othello is the toast of the town. An outdated Puritan law states that women are unable to act on stage, sidelined as dressers or stage -hands. One such woman, Maria (Claire Danes) works alongside Kynaston but is desirous of his role. Watching his every gesture, Maria longs to swap places, lamenting his lack of agency as Desdemona , who with fluttering hands, just dies in a pretty way. “A woman would FIGHT!”
Watching – unseen- how women are treated is King Charles ‘ outspoken mistress Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper, an equal parts mischievous and knowing presence) who, using her feminine wiles, persuades her lover to change the law, allowing women to act.
Of course, after a soupcon of professional rivalry, Maria and Kynaston become romantically involved. Inevitably, Maria usurps her new lover in the role he made famous. This is, in essence, a period romp, after all. But it’s the wicked script, well – judged performances and little detours that the film takes that elevate it above the usual frothy fare. The suggestion of gender as performative even feels prescient for a film made in 2004. It’s superior in every way to Shakespeare In Love. Gwyneth who?