Those who have something invested in keeping the boundaries of gender and sexuality rigid will be offended by this film, whether they be religious fundamentalist types or gay-rights advocates who argue from the constrictive either/or framing of their opponents. Fundamentalists (and I used to be one!) would, at the same time, find material to support their nurture-not-nature conclusions in Ned Kynaston's background (implicit victimization at the hands of an implicit pedophile), the bigoted comments of the king about effeminate boys, and most of all the actor's eventual orientation "reversal" at the hands of the "right woman." This, of course, would anger those who have chosen to engage them in the loaded "is it a choice?" battle which completely dismisses the B in LGBT. If you are coming from an angle in which no Kinsey scale exists, then the offense makes sense.
I think it's a mistaken angle, however. My only complaints about this movie were minor, and involved poor editing, unnecessary dialogue, and a couple of unlikely scenarios (e.g. the carriage ladies' hyperbolic reaction to Ned's petticoat surprise). Otherwise, I loved it - enough to watch it four times on DVD. For me, this story was about identity, authenticity, the malleability of gender and sexuality, and the difference between love and projection.
At the bustling outset of the film, Ned (pitch-perfect Billy Crudup, ravishing in any incarnation) is arrogant and narcissistic; his self-regard is balanced perilously upon a constructed self that relies on the applause of others. Alone with Maria, we get a glimmer of something else in him when he pauses contemplatively to quote his mentor - "Never forget that you are a man in woman's form...or was it the other way 'round?" This hint at an awareness (on his or the film's part) of the essential duality of human nature is echoed by Maria - "You would make as fine a man as any woman."
When Ned loses his role and his audience to Maria, he loses his very identity; in this way, she "kills" him. The theme of killing and dying is cleverly woven throughout the narrative, both onstage and off. (But more on that presently.)
Lost and literally beaten, Ned turns to his former lover, who spurns him with droll indifference. Ned is no longer the shallow Duke's glittering projection but a raw, needy, and very messy human being. Ned's disastrous last-ditch attempt to play Othello for the king in order to save his livelihood is the final humiliation. Maria watches his disintegration onstage, and grasps his utter vulnerability for the first time. It's a credit to Claire Danes' talent that she can speak volumes without uttering a word; in this scene and the inn scene her unexpressed love bleeds from every pore.
The almost-sex scene between the two at the inn is one of my favorite love scenes in any film. The gentle role-switching from "man" to "woman" (in alternate parlance, "top" to "bottom" or "dominant" to "submissive") leads to a passionate confusion in which, if you'll notice, Ned tells Maria (astride him) first that she is the "woman" - "And now?" she says, kissing and caressing him - "The woman," he says - "And now?" she says, her passion intensifying - "The man," he murmurs. Do the roles really matter? If only he had shut up about Desdemona! But there is still some "dying" left to do, and not in the Shakespearian sense. Call it evening the score.
For alas, Maria is a terrible actress: as affected as Ned was, and twice as false. In rehearsal with someone who evokes her own passion, however, her performance begins to come alive.
The harrowing climax of the film has the viewer wondering, along with the theatre audience, if the newfound Othello's murderous passion is real. And it is, which is why Ned is so good at it. In "killing" Maria onstage, he manages at once to work out his Othello-like ambivalence and rage toward a woman he also loves; to "kill" her affected stage persona; and to give birth to himself as an authentic actor in his own male body. It's damn near perfect.
"Finally got the death scene right." Ned may not yet know who or even what he is, but he finds expression of his innermost being with a person who loves and accepts him for whomever he may turn out to be. We should all be so lucky.