Maria loves him, and is consumed with a desire to act, even though it is illegal for a woman to appear on stage at this time. She copies Kynaston’s moves, learns his lines, picks his brains for insight into his art, and dares to play Othello’s Desdemona in an underground production—the same part which Kynaston currently has. The King takes interest in the rumors of this production, and suddenly the tables are turned, with Maria the hot item in town, and Kynaston out of a job.
But this is not just a period piece about a ground-breaking move in the history of theater. It reveals itself as a treatise on gender identity.
When I first glimpsed this, I braced myself for the usual gay-rights sermon which seems to be de rigeur these days, but it didn’t happen. There is a homosexual relationship, but it could hardly be called "love," and is unhealthy by anybody’s standards. It is not celebrated or held up as a heroically tragic thing, but as an obstacle.
Although the film has been compared to Shakespeare In Love, I think it stands more in the grand tradition of Tootsie (1982) or Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), except that it is not a comedy. What it means to be a man, or a woman, becomes the burden of both of the main characters. So accomplished is Kynaston in the stylized portrayal of femininity that he literally does not know how to play the part of a man. And Maria, who basically has studied acting by watching Kynaston’s formulaic posing, does not know how to look natural as a woman on stage.
At one point, when Kynaston is barred by law from playing the part of a female, Samuel Pepys diplomatically tries to encourage him to take a male part. He tells Kynaston that he enjoyed seeing him perform Rosalind in As You Like It, especially "your performance of the ‘man stuff’" --where Rosalind poses as a man—it "seemed so right, so true. I suppose I felt it was the most real thing in the play."
"You know why the ‘man stuff’ seemed so real?" Kynaston replies. "Because I’m pretending. You see a man through the mirror of a woman through the mirror of a man. You take one of those reflecting glasses away, it doesn’t work; ‘man’ only works because you see him in contrast to the ‘woman’ he is. If you saw him without the her he lives inside, he wouldn’t seem a man at all."
After trying to puzzle this out for a moment, Pepys replies in a mystified tone, "Yes, you’ve obviously thought longer on this question than I." We learn later why his reply is more true than he realized.
If you like bawdy humor, there are some hilarious scenes, but this isn’t a comedy. There is brief nudity, but it is not presented in a titillating fashion. There is a scene of violence, but surprisingly enough, it is not gay-bashing. There is a love story, but it seems to be a backdrop against which to test concepts like masculinity and femininity. There is a riveting portrayal of Desdemona’s death scene, which some have called anachronistic in its realism, but it works in the film as no doubt it did in the stage play which formed the basis for the screenplay. And the ending may seem at first blush to be unsatisfactory, but on reflection seems to be the most realistic choice the writer could have made.