It's an unconventional love story set in the theater with characters spouting iambic pentameter. But don't compare it to ''Shakespeare in Love.'' ''It's lazy to put them in the same category,'' says director Richard Eyre (''Iris''). '''Shakespeare' was a romantic comedy. The ambition of this is to be a comedy, but also to ask questions about sex and gender and identity.'' ''Beauty'' follows Ned (Billy Crudup), an actor celebrated for playing female roles. Until King Charles II (Rupert Everett) allows women to play their own parts, which provides a boon for Maria (Claire Danes), an aspiring actress who happens to be obsessed with Ned. ''I was in a panic because it was complex material,'' says Danes. ''I had an accent to whip up, another period of time to imagine, and it was so layered.''
To add nuance to the plot's intricacies, Danes, Crudup, and Eyre underwent five weeks of rehearsals. Apparently, all that prep time sparked more than on-screen fireworks for its stars. ''There is a relationship,'' confirms Eyre of Danes and Crudup. ''Was it apparent [during filming]? You know what was apparent? These two very intelligent actors, who are witty and attractive, got on very well. Beyond that, I couldn't and wouldn't say more.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE Overcoming the inevitable comparisons to Shakespeare.