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The Book of Na'Lon

or rather, Inane Ramblings of an Expatriot

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Stage Beauty
This evening there was nothing on television that the Marquis and I wanted to watch (we had been watching the Ray Mears stuff previously on Wednesdays) and so I thought that perhaps we should watch another of our films on DVD which we haven't yet seen since we bought it.

Since it was lying next to the television, I decided to propose we watch Stage Beauty. We'd bought this one very cheap in a sale, because it sounded intriguing to me from the text on the back of the box.

The film tells the story of an actor in the 17th Century (when all female parts were played by men). This actor is thought to be the greatest beauty on stage and is a bit of a star and a bit of a conceited, pompous git. In the theatre, he has a dresser - a woman - who wants nothing more than to act herself, despite the fact that acting is not a legal activity for the women of the time. But the dresser, undaunted, acts in a version of the play her employer (the actor) is particularly famous for: Othello. Her version of the play takes place in a pub, and soon creates quite a stir. The stir leads the woman into the court of Charles II, and the King changes the law so that women may act female roles, and men are no longer permitted to do so. So our star from the start is out of a job, and the dresser gets her shot at stardom. Snag is... she is a terrible actress. Fortunes shift again, when the actor is asked to coach his erstwhile dresser in his star role of Desdemona by the King's mistress and Samuel Pepys for an important performance before the King himself. The actor grudgingly allows himself to be persuaded, and they end up putting on a fantastic show, culminating with the murder scene in Othello getting so intense that the actor - who ends up playing the Moor - very nearly allows his resentment with his dresser's role in ending his career to lead him to murder her in earnest - or maybe they both just act incredibly well.

It is a modern story about an interesting historical conundrum, and I thought it did well at not becoming too jarringly anachronistic, but blending history and now. One of the questions that runs throughout the whole film is that of identity: 'Who are you? Man or woman' and in what context. This is sometimes asked directly, sometimes implied, sometimes funny and sometimes painful. At the end, the question is never fully resolved. After their highly dramatic and very successful play the dresser asks the actor again who he is now and he answer with 'I don't know'. I liked that. I liked the awkwardness and continued resentment in that last statement. It made for a moving end that escaped becoming cliched or trite.

The Marquis found much of the film excruciatingly embarrassing - a lot of it was painful to watch, with the characters undergoing brutal transformations of their fortunes and not a few public or semi-public humiliations. It could have been played for laughs, I suppose, but I didn't find it funny. The symmetry of the two main characters' fates was played out tightly and sympathetically.

Interestingly, the Marquis suggested that Stage Beauty and Shakespeare in Love could almost be sort of bookends. I like the image. I had much the same impression myself. But the Marquis's words were rather nicer and more concise than how I would have put it.

Either way, it was a film that resonated within me.

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I love this film - not least because it contains the memorable line "And give me back my merkin!". I first encountered the word some 20 years ago in the company of a rather delightful man I would probably have married had it not been for the existence of his (very nice) wife and children, so I've always had a special fondness for it.

And I agree with all your comments. It's a great social commentary film, with a fine script and amazing acting. I'm surprised it didn't get more attention when it was released, but then I find that's the case with a lot of my favourite films.

Yes, that was a good line, even if I don't have any particular memory associated with the word merkin.

I was also surprised by the lack of attention the film had received. I wonder if it's relative temporal vicinity to Shakespeare in Love was part of the problem, what with Stage Beauty not really being a 'feel good' sort of film.

I also find that many of the films I am particularly fond of are more likely to show up in art house cinemas and don't tend to hang around elsewhere.

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