Las Vegas Mercury  
  Saturday, Jul 23, 2016, 07:56:27 AM


"Hand me that peanut butter and I'll show you my definition of fun."

Stage Beauty
(R, 105 min.)
Selected theaters

(R, 150 min.)
Selected theaters

Thursday, November 04, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Stage Beauty/Zelary

Acts of desperation: Romance trips over its lines in Stage Beauty

There's a lot of interesting fodder to take in with Stage Beauty, an exploration of theater, gender and politics in 17th century England, but unfortunately its love story subplot wreaks havoc. An adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher's play directed by Richard Eyre, the film depicts a pivotal point in the history of theater, when the English crown overturns an edict barring women from gracing the stage, ending the tradition of men taking on female characters. But things get ambitious when themes of desire--both gay and straight--get tossed into the mix, and the results are both underwhelming and perplexing.

The center of the film is a production of Shakespeare's Othello, where the role of diva Desdemona is portrayed by crowd favorite Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup). His stagehand Maria (Claire Danes) aspires to be an actress herself, and does so illegally with a competing production company. When she's found out, instead of being penalized, the reigning King Charles II (Rupert Everett) overturns the no-girls-allowed rule. This effectively launches Maria's career and kills Ned's, the former in emotional limbo because of her feelings for the latter, who simultaneously loses his job, his male lover and his identity. Ned is left to either give up acting or find his masculine side, and Maria might be the only one who can help him.

It's the extent to which she helps him that's troubling. It's implied more than a few times that Ned must go straight--or manly--to solve his dilemma. Thankfully, Crudup overcomes the narrative flaws with what may be his best performance; he wisely plays Ned with assured ambiguity. Furthermore, he's the only actor in the film not resorting to overt, even camp theatricality when it's unnecessary. As for the historical context, it has a more interesting slant than it did in 1998's Shakespeare in Love, which was clearly a romance film. No matter how hard it tries, Beauty is not.--Mike Prevatt

Wars on the home front

Zelary gives us World War II though the eyes of a small, isolated Czech village, and the vision is sharp enough to make us feel as if we're seeing the war for the first time. Director Ondrej Trojan, working with a script by Petr Jarchovsky based on an autobiography, has created a beautifully detailed work that celebrates the little, human moments in an inhuman time.

When we first meet Eliska (Ana Geisllerova) in 1943, she's a young, attractive nurse (soon to be a doctor) living in the big city of Prague, having an active love life and working with the Resistance. When her identity is discovered by the Nazis, she's whisked away with a new name and personal history to Joza's peasant village of Zelary. Here, she must marry Joza so she can openly live with her protector and not call attention to herself. Much of the ensuing 2 1/2-hour film deals with the cosmopolitan woman's adjustment to the simple life, as well as her eventual falling in love with Joza, and her dealings with the Nazis' occasional infringement on her quiet environment.

The scenes introducing us to everyday village life are slow, but they're not dead or self-consciously arty the way Vera Drake or Birth is. They're filled with information that paints a complete picture of Eliska's experience. We get an occasional glimpse of Nazi atrocities--a hanging here, a burning building there--but, in a gorgeous bit of irony, death is kept in the background until after the war. The small film takes on epic scale when an early minor plot point explodes into violence just as the Allies are announcing the villagers' freedom. The climax is a bloodbath that is shocking but logical.

Zelary hints that the locations of wars are not always visible. It reminds us that the emotional struggles in one's own back yard are often the most lethal.--Anthony Del Valle

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