This review was updated on Sept. 6, 2005.
History’s most famous Lothario and the whole razzmatazz of 18th century Venice enliven romantic costume comedy “Casanova,” a handsome chunk of widescreen entertainment that’s as nimble as its rakish hero. Strong cast, led by Heath Ledger, and script by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and newbie Kimberly Simi combine for a swashbuckling, modern-ironic effect. With proper positioning, this could prove a seductive upscale item on Stateside release in late December; overseas liaisons should be wider and stronger.
Pic proved an audience-pleaser at the Venice fest, leaving many wondering why it hadn’t been selected as the opening film, especially as it was shot entirely in Venice.
Critical diehards in love with Federico Fellini’s ornate, studio-bound 1976 extravaganza — restored this year by Italy’s Cineteca Nazionale — will need to readjust their bearings for this version, which presents a colorful but well-scrubbed version of the city and its denizens, sans any family-unfriendly sex and nudity. Also, although the social-religious problems of the time are acknowledged in the film, this version is basically a slick costume romp in one of the world’s most visually seductive settings. Aussie-born Ledger’s flawless English accent helps him blend well with the largely British, seasoned cast, and director Lasse Hallstrom establishes a lightly knockabout tone that strongly recalls Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers” in its mix of modernisms and period flavor. Auds with a love for bigscreen entertainment should respond to this generous-hearted movie.
It also reps a revitalization of Hallstrom’s career, following a series of good-looking but dull dramas (“An Unfinished Life,” “The Shipping News” and some would also argue “Chocolat”). In some respects, the vitality of “Casanova” harks back to the pics he made in Sweden prior to the one that triggered his international career, “My Life as a Dog” (1985).
Opening with a wrinkled old man (presumed to be Casanova) writing his memoirs, film wastes no time straining after historical veracity, informing, in voiceover, that here’s one story that hasn’t been told — Casanova and Francesca. Switch to Venice, 1753, and 28-year-old Casanova (Ledger) is already a byword for womanizing. He is first seen fleeing a nun’s bedroom and running across rooftops as the Inquisition, led by Dalfonso (Ken Stott), tries to arrest him.
Casanova is saved from the hangman’s noose by the intervention of Venice’s numero uno, the Doge (Tim McInnerny), who admires the young rake’s escapades. But he tells Casanova to find a good wife pronto, or he’ll have him kicked out of the city.
After a quick perusal of the available women, Casanova decides on Victoria (Natalie Dormer) — “that rare thing, a Venetian virgin” — who, in some very funny sight gags, is literally gagging for a shag with the legendary libertine.
Unknown to her, Victoria is also in the sights of shy young Giovanni Bruni (Charlie Cox), who lives across the alleyway with his widowed mom, Andrea (Lena Olin), and his proto-feminist elder sister, Francesca (Sienna Miller). When Giovanni challenges Casanova to a duel and is saved from embarrassment by Francesca’s superior swordsmanship, Casanova realizes he’s made a mistake in his choice of bride — he should have pursued Francesca.
Unfortunately, the feisty Francesca doesn’t seem interested — and has an arranged fiance (she’s never met) who is about to arrive in Venice.
When the fiance, portly Papprizzio (Oliver Platt), arrives, he is befriended at the docks by Casanova and his manservant, Lupo (Omid Djalili), and, in an increasingly complex series of deceptions, is persuaded to let Casanova take his place at a welcoming tea party.
Early setup is smoothly established through a combo of trim editing, a Vivaldi-esque music score that hardly ever pauses and sharp dialogue that clearly establishes the characters. (Tom Stoppard worked, uncredited, on a final script polish.)
Meanwhile, the Inquisition installs a new official, hardliner Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), who makes it his personal mission to nail Casanova. But, little does Pucci realize that the man who’s offered to help him is Casanova himself, posing as Papprizzio.
Various other subplots decorate the action, making for a remarkably smooth first hour prior to the pic’s setpiece: carnival time in the city and the Doge’s sumptuous masked ball. Final act goes the usual route of costumed hijinks, with an imprisonment and exhilarating escape and chase. The coda is unexpectedly quiet.
Dialogue is only occasionally laugh-out-loud funny but generally well-turned. Though they’re spirited enough and bring an acceptable soupcon of modernity to their roles, Ledger and Miller don’t have quite what it takes to carry the picture on their own. But with an ensemble of this quality, including character actors like Platt, Djalili and McInnerny, plus Irons having a ball as the pompous Pucci, they fit just fine.
Ensemble approach pays dividends in the finale, as, in true commedia dell’arte style, the various character strands all come satisfyingly together.
Production design by David Gropman tweaks real Venice locations in a clean, mainstream way, and Jenny Beaven’s handsome but not overstated costumes (all ambers, burnt reds, turquoises and purples) fill the screen with color. Visual effects — as in a romantic balloon ride across the city — are deployed to the greater dramatic good, as is Oliver Stapleton’s burnished Panavision lensing.