Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 12/29/05 09:45:27

3 stars (Average)

Jake Gyllenhaal played a gay cowboy for Ang Lee in Brokeback Mountain and then went straight (pun intended) into playing the eponymous macho US marine in Jarhead. Heath Ledger, who played Gyllenhaal’s lover, has also acted quickly to avoid typecasting and protect his (heterosexual) bankability. He leaps into the role of legendary adventurer and lover of women, Giacamo Casanova.

Casanova’s reputation as a seducer of women is notorious in Venice, 1753 - the fodder of satirical Punch-and-Judy style puppet shows. When we meet him, the self-styled “philosopher of love” is bed hopping through the chambers of a nunnery! The Catholic Inquisition have charged him with debauchery and dispatched the Vatican’s most feared inquisitor, Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), to arrest and execute the “master fornicator”. Meanwhile, the unthinkable has occurred. Casanova has met his match, in the headstrong feminist-before-her-time Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller).

The course of love does not run smooth. Francesca despises Casanova for his rakish exploits, but they meet when he is incognito and she is instantly intrigued. He is unaware she is the heretical writer (under a nom de plume) of pamphlets advocating equality for women. Further, both are already engaged - Casanova to the virginal Victoria (Natalie Dormer), in order to thwart a sentence of exile from Venice; and Francesca to rich “lard merchant” Paprizzio (Oliver Platt), a scheme of her wily, widowed mother Andrea (Lena Olin) to rescue the family from imminent poverty. Casanova must court Francesca without revealing his identity until the right moment, whilst avoiding the clutches of his lusty new fiancée and staying one step ahead of Bishop Pucci and the police.

Casanova is a giddy, heady farce. There’s little pretence to historical accuracy but it unfolds with a wicked sense of mischief. The plotting is over elaborate, and the fun lies in seeing the complications mount. Not only are there switched identities and pseudonyms aplenty, a major set piece occurs during a recreation of Carnevale, the famous Venetian masked ball and pageant, in the Piazza San Marco. Swedish director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Shipping News) takes none of this very seriously and proves surprisingly adept at orchestrating physical comedy. The light-hearted Casanova is also a breath of fresh air after his saccharine literary adaptations for Miramax, which have rolled in like clockwork for Oscar season since 1999’s The Cider House Rules. Casanova grew not from a novel – the screenplay, by Kimberley Simi and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty), is instead from an idea by Simi and Michael Cristofer.

In casting 26 year-old Ledger, Hallström and his producers have plumped for a much younger incarnation of the legendary figure. Ledger goes at the role with all the flair he can muster, and captures the athleticism of a man used to protecting his honour with a sword. He’s less believable as a dazzling wit, and lacks the maturity of someone ready to settle down with the love of his lifetime. Ledger’s boyishness makes him better suited for vulnerable roles; here, he lacks the necessary robustness and forcefulness of the dashing hero. Nor does he carry himself with the requisite ease of a man accustomed to always getting what – and who – he wants.

British actress Sienna Miller (Alfie, Layer Cake) is fine as Francesca, but her anachronistic feminist attitudes mark her as such an obviously 21st Century addition that it’s a wonder they didn’t dispense with her corset altogether and put her in jeans. The supporting actors supply the most fun. Jeremy Irons is comically arch, hissing the Bishop’s lines through pursed lips and camping it up in his villainous Vatican finery. Oliver Platt deserves credit for transforming his buffoon of a pork fat mogul into a man deserving of sympathy. Lena Olin (Hallström’s wife) and Miller make a fine visual match as mother and daughter.

Hallström generally shoots where his stories are set. Filming in Venice must have been a logistical nightmare for cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, but he captures the light and colour of the city and makes impressive use of the location. Alexandre Desplat contributes a lively, classical score and there is eye-catching work from costume designer Jenny Beavan. This version of Casanova is frothy rather than erotic, a colourful historical romp for the blue rinse set.

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