The shadow of “Shakespeare in Love” hangs very heavy over this period comedy-drama from well-known theatre director Richard Eyre, a film that, like that Oscar winner, invests an imaginative tale about Tudor-Stuart stagecraft with elements of romance, and is also animated by a distinctly modern sensibility. In this case, though, the anachronistic look back at the distant past doesn’t achieve the same degree of charm, and there are aspects that get uncomfortably heavy-handed, partially as a result of a less adept cast. “Stage Beauty” can be enjoyed in fits and starts, but overall it’s a near-miss.

Jeffrey Hatcher’s script, based on his play, is set during the reign of Charles II (Rupert Everett) in England, at the time when the pre-Restoration prohibition on women appearing on the stage, instituted under Puritan influence, was rescinded. According to the scenario Hatcher has contrived, the royal decision is an unintended consequence of the action of the most notable cross-dressing performer of the day, Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who brings to royal attention the fact that his dresser Maria (Claire Danes) has been performing in violation of the existing law, hoping that the revelation will cause the practice to stop. Unhappily for Ned, it has the opposite effect, resulting in a decree–encouraged by Charles’ common-born mistress Nell (Zoe Tapper), whom Kynaston had offended–that henceforth men shall not be permitted to play women on stage. The result is that the poor fellow–so recently an object of adulation–is suddenly out of work and destitute, since all his training has been to do distaff parts and he proves incapable of tackling male roles, leading his former employer Thomas Betterton (Tom Wilkinson) to dismiss him. To make matters worse, his former lover, the duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), loses interest–it seems it was always Ned’s feminine side that attracted him–and the pompous Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths), whom Kynaston had once dissed while in drag and who’s now become Maria’s patron, seizes the opportunity to take violent revenge on him. Things look mighty bleak for our poor, suffering hero–who’s almost like a male version of Camille–until Maria doubts her ability to play the most demanding of Shakespeare’s female roles, Desdemona (a Kynaston specialty) and Ned is called upon to coach her in it. Since Maria, who’s always loved Ned from afar, has already stepped up to help him in his hour of need (reawakening his heterosexual side in the process), he’s willing to assist–but curiously he does so by staging the final scene from “Othello” in a self-consciously modern style: taking the title role himself, he plays the Moor as Marlon Brando might have done in full Stanley Kowalski mode, tossing Maria around the room with a virulence so real that it makes the audience gasp (as the throttled Maria does, too).

The filmmakers behind and in front of the camera have some fun with this historical farrago, but even at its best artifice takes precedence over genuine enlightenment here. Certainly the picture is nicely appointed, with Jim Clay’s production design, Tom Hatley’s costumes, Jan Spoczynski and Keith Slote’s art direction and Caroline Smith’s set decoration all set off nicely by Andrew Dunn’s widescreen cinematography. George Fenton’s score, which makes use of Handelian echoes, adds aural majesty to the mix. Among the performers, Everett does a crowd-pleasingly foppish turn as Charles, and Griffiths’ pompous, powdered-wig Sedley gets easy laughs as well; Wilkinson does his usual reliable work, even though Betterton gives him little opportunity to really shine. The lead romantic pair are less impressive. Crudup tries very hard, and his fine features make him not totally implausible as a cross-dressing star (although it might have been better to shoot his scenes at a discreet distance rather than in extreme close-up), but he isn’t able to make the abrupt changes in the character in the last reel persuasive (not that anyone else would have done appreciably better); Danes, who certainly looks the part, brings surprisingly little to Maria otherwise. Tapper does a forced semi-cockney routine as Nell, and Edward Fox is largely wasted in his brief turn as Sir Edward Hyde, the king’s chief minister.

One can understand why Eyre, with his theatrical background, was attracted to this material, and his affection for it is palpable. That’s not enough, though; too often his touch seems a bit off, either in composing scenes or in handling the actors, and especially in the last act, where he’s unable to soften the crude anachronism of the final shift to what amounts to method acting, the tonal shifts seem unsure. “Stage Beauty” is sporadically engaging–certainly it’s a more successful comedy-drama about the period than Michael Hoffman’s more pretentious “Restoration” (1995)–but ultimately its almost campy artificiality, ragged transitions and contrived finale suggest that this production isn’t likely to enjoy a long run.