There's more swordplay than foreplay in this spin on the escapades of the 18th century legendary lover Casanova. The story unfolds like a Shakespeare comedy without the poetry -- riddled with mistaken identities, nom de plumes, cross-dressing, masks, and masques.
The movie looks gorgeous, with period costumes in the Venetian settings. The cast is lively and engaging, dancing nimbly through the intricate steps of the plot, which twists and turns like the maze-like streets of Venice itself.
If the movie had been a little more serious, it could have been a little more romantic, but director Lasse Halleström could not resist some anachronistic double-entendres (in the James Bond style), and chose to keep it all as light and bubbly as a glass of Prosecco.
We first meet Casanova as a mere lad, being dropped off (by rowboat -- this is Venice, after all) to live with his grandmother. "I'll be back," his mother promises, as she rows off to be with her lover. Jump to a couple of decades later, and Casanova (Heath Ledger) is the cool, charming, strenuously uncommitted ladies' man of legend. In an apparently-typical escapade, his interlude with a novitiate is rudely interrupted by the Doge's henchmen, under orders to arrest the rake for corrupting the morals of the female population of Venice.
Clambering over rooftops and leaping over canals to elude his pursuers, he is distracted by the unexpected appearance of a comely female. He is captured and hauled off to the Doge, who warns that his days (and nights) of debauchery must end, because the Vatican is getting annoyed. It's clear that morality isn't the real issue, but simply an excuse for a power grab; nonetheless, the great lover is ordered to clean up his act by getting married, prontissimo.
Casanova Meets His Match
Casanova selects the lovely virgin Victoria (Natalie Dormer, hilariously seething with untapped libido) as the ideal fiancée to burnish his image. The engagement upsets the boy next door (or across the canal, in this case), who has been languishing with unrequited love for Victoria. Not knowing his rival's true identity, he impetuously challenges Casanova to a duel.
Casanova soon crosses swords with the quick-witted, sharp-tongued Francesca, who is all-too clearly impervious to his legendary charms. She is scornful of his philosophy of love as a banquet of indulgence, holding out for the ideal man who has the refined taste to savor one true love.
As anyone knows from the time-honored conventions of romantic comedies, there's nothing like a battle of wits to spark passion. Casanova realizes, to his own amazement and dismay, that, in selecting the chaste and docile Victoria for his bride, he's "made a terrible mistake."
He sets his sights on the feisty Francesca, trying to discover the identity of the man she secretly visits -- and to delay the courtship by a man her late father arranged to be her husband -- the portly Paprizzio, Lard King of Genoa (Oliver Platt).
The arrival of the villainous Pucci, Papal Inquisitor (Jeremy Irons, chewing the scenery with relish, ham on the side) raises the stakes, as he is determined to capture, convict, and kill the legendary lover for heretical libidinous in the nth degree (or something along those lines).
Behind the Masks
There is a vein of seriousness underlying this frothy romp -- at its core, the characters are wrestling with identity issues: what (and when, and how much) we reveal to others, while still being be true to ourselves.
Heath Ledger is appropriately dashing in a role more like his turn in A Knight's Tale than the current Brokeback Mountain. Sienna Miller's warm and witty Francesca is a perfect foil, and one is grateful, on behalf of Casanova, that she relents toward him; Casanova, for his part, is smart enough to realize how lucky he is.
Lena Olin is delightful as the scheming mother urging her daughter to a wealthy marriage, only to find the best-laid plans surprisingly disrupted. Platt's pompous suitor reveals a sweet vulnerability behind the bulk, and Jeremy Irons' menacing Inquisitor casts a shadow on the lightheartedness.
Despite the life-or-death threat at the climax, there is never any doubt of the happy ending. Keeping track of all the twists is tricky, and upon reflection there are some plot holes you could sail a gondola through. But, taken in the spirit of an entertaining romp, the characters all seem to be enjoying themselves, and the audience does too.
- Weight-loss regimen or torture? What's the difference?
- A joke about bacon.
- Seduction in a hot air balloon, floating over Venice by night.
- Heavy necking (literally) in a gondola at dawn.
Credits and Rating
Director: Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News) Screenwriters: Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) and Kimberly Simi
Rated R: which is puzzling. Apparently the R is "for some sexual content" but considering the subject matter, the movie reveals remarkably little skin, and the sexual innuendo is on the junior-high school level. The most flesh on display is Oliver Platt's, and it's neither prurient or pretty.
Runtime: 108 minutes