CASANOVA is a giddy, good-natured romp with lust on its mind and romance in its heart. Balancing the ironic with the ribald, it’s elegantly served up by Lasse Hallstrom, as it celebrates irreverent repartee and sumptuous self-indulgence reined in only by the limits of imagination.
Our title character (Heath Ledger) is a male beauty living the good life in 18th-century Venice. He’s got a twinkle in his eye and a diffident sort of suavity that drives the women of his native Venice wild, even the ones sworn to chastity and locked away in convents. He’s a master of self-possession and the perfect quip in any situation no matter how complicated, and the complications are rife in Casanova’s world, many of them of his own making. Delivering lines such as “I don’t conquer, I submit” with something very like sincerity without being quite as dull, he’s a legend, even beyond the lagoon in which Venice nestles contentedly, and brought him to the attention of not just impatient virgins and eager matrons, but also the Holy Inquisition, for somewhat different reasons. He is master of all he surveys, despite an empty bank account, and perfectly content until he meets, at exactly the wrong moment, the woman of his dreams (Sienna Miller), a feisty and beautiful proto-feminist who preaches such shocking heresies as higher education for women.
His carnal excesses, celebrated by all concerned and their fan club, are a cause for concern by the Church, and after years of dodging its punitive arm with the help of a sympathetic Doge, Casanova has found himself in the unpleasant position of having to marry a virtuous woman or face certain execution. His chooses the most famous, and perhaps impatient, virgin in the city, a plan that trips along nicely until his heart is finally won by ci-mentioned lady who, alas, has no interest in someone like Casanova. And besides, her mother (sultry Lena Olin) has plighted her troth to a rich man she’s never met in order to restore the family’s fortunes.
This exquisite confection plays out like a classic farce, including cross-purposes, mistaken identities, and a masked ball where everything comes to a head with humor high, low, and in between. It’s played to the hilt by a veteran cast who understands that farce, even in moments of broad physical exercise, requires a rare form of subtlety to make it work. The tale is told equally with sparkling dialogue and with the nuance of a knowing smile or a well-arched eyebrow.
Hallstrom catches the glamour of romance with balloon rides over the canals or a gobsmacked glance across a crowded room, and he throws that into high contrast with the less exalted forms of romantic interaction, making the former all the more exhilarating. And egalitarian, because this is a universe where even the ample form of the self-styled lard king of Genoa (Oliver Platt sugar-plum yummy), deserves the wonder of true love. There is the contrast with the Church, as well, with Jeremy Irons exuding an imperious, reptilian menace as the Papal legate unconcerned by the niceties of morality when it comes to enforcing it in others.
There’s no room for ill-will in CASANOVA, even for that unpleasant legate, who loses out by missing the point of the more tender emotions and thereby gets his own just deserts. Forget him and let the lush spectacle sweep you away.