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Dangerous Beauty

Imagine Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steel enriched with historical veracity and social conscience and you have the beginnings of 16th-century yarn of courtly intrigue, affairs of the heart and sumptuous images. Commercially, it's not about to turn many heads on the domestic front but could have modest success in upscale international markets.

Imagine Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steel enriched with historical veracity and social conscience and you have the beginnings of “Dangerous Beauty.” The 16th-century yarn of courtly intrigue, affairs of the heart and sumptuous images is an odd mix of high-toned intentions and cornball romance that works in fits and bursts. Commercially, it’s not about to turn many heads on the domestic front but could have some modest theatrical success in upscale international markets. While there’s much to admire in the film, both its setting and tone seem out of touch with prevailing tastes.

Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) is a young woman whose circle falls just outside the core of the Venetian court. She aspires to rise above her station, casting her sights on Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell), a nobleman’s son who’s favorably disposed to her glances. But both are told forcefully by parents that this is a match that can never be consecrated in marriage.

The young woman’s mother, Paola (Jacqueline Bisset), recommends that Veronica pursue her own former path as a courtesan. Initially, Veronica is shocked, but she warms to the idea because it allows her to read and exchange views on poetry in the male-dominated society. She also becomes used to the sexual nature of her position.

Though based on real characters and incidents, there’s a grand, swashbuckling quality to the material that verges on campy, Pythoneque satire. Out of the boudoir, Veronica duels using both words and swords with more vigor than skill. And director Marshall Herskovitz’s concept of historical background is to have characters intone somberly to the court that the Turks have invaded or the plague has arrived. Too often the result is unintended humor.

It’s actually the Harlequin romance elements of the drama that play best. The notion of star-crossed lovers transcends time, and McCormack and Sewell possess the vital chemistry to make us care about this umpteenth version of a familiar scenario. The pic’s other dramatic ace is in dealing with the indentured nature of women, even those of wealth. Long before there was a feminist movement, our heroine lays out the hypocrisy of her time in an emotion-packed trial in which Vatican emissaries accuse her of witchcraft.

Though a number of performers strain period credulity, Norman Garwood’s production design handsomely anchors the story in the past. It’s so finely realized, one almost doesn’t notice how indifferently the picture is shot or the banality of the music score.

McCormack works hard to pull off a near impossible act — creating a woman who’s meant to be irresistible. She does well enough, and is greatly abetted by Sewell’s facility at conveying his character’s struggle to balance ardor with social obligation. In a more commercial vehicle, it would be a star-making role.

Also strong in the large cast are Bisset, Jeroen Krabbe as Sewell’s father and, surprisingly, the hitherto very American Moira Kelly as a wife who takes up Veronica’s unfashionable perspective. The other Americans in the cast, including Oliver Platt and Fred Ward, make less auspicious Atlantic crossings.

It’s rare to find a film that embodies the extremes of “Dangerous Beauty.” Wildly theatrical and funny, emotionally overblown, historically vivid and plucky, it wants to entertain and stretches toward something it can’t possibly reach. Certainly not boring, it is so bold (if misguided) in execution that one cannot help but go along for the romp.

Dangerous Beauty

  • Production: A Warner Bros. release of a Regency Enterprises presentation of an Arnon Milchan/Bedford Falls production. Produced by Milchan, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, Sarah Kaplan. Executive producers, Michael Nathanson, Stephen Randall. Co-producer, Paolo Lucidi. Directed by Marshall Herskovitz. Screenplay, Jeannine Dominy, based on the book "The Honest Courtesan" by Margaret Rosenthal.
  • Crew: Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Bojan Bazelli; editors, Steven Rosenblum, Arthur Coburn; music, George Fenton; production design, Norman Garwood; art direction, Gianni Giovagnoni, Stefania Cella; set design, Ian Whittaker; costume design, Gabriella Pescucci; sound (Dolby Digital), David Stephenson; fight choreography, William Hobbs; assistant director, Kuki Lopez Rodero; casting, Mindi Marin, Wendy Kurtzman, Mary Selway. Reviewed at the Aidikoff Screening Room, Beverly Hills, Jan. 14, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 111 min.
  • With: Veronica Franco - Catherine McCormack Marco Venier - Rufus Sewell Paola Franco - Jacqueline Bisset Maffio Venier - Oliver Platt Beatrice Venier - Moira Kelly Domenico Venier - Fred Ward Guila De Lezze - Naomi Watts Pietro Venier - Jeroen Krabbe Laura Venier - Joanna Cassidy Serafino Franco - Daniel LaPaine King Henry - Jake Weber Minister Ramberti - Simon Dutton Doge - Peter Eyre Bishop De la Torre - Michael Culkin