Giovanni Giacomo Casanova was a real-life adventurer, soldier, writer, philosopher, diplomat, and spy (1725-1798), whose autobiography created the romantic legend we know today regarding Casanova the great lover. His name has become synonymous with that of a ladies' man, a womanizer, a rake, a libertine, a Don Juan. But don't expect the real-life character to make an appearance in the 2005 movie "Casanova." This one is played strictly for laughs, something director Lasse Halstrom ("The Cider House Rules," "Chocolat," "The Shipping News," "An Unfinished Life") is not exactly known for.
The movie begins with an aged Casanova writing up his memoirs and telling us there is one last story he has never before put down. It is the story he is about to tell us, the story of Francesca.
The flashback story takes place in Venice in 1753, when Casanova (Heath Ledger) was at the height of his powers, so to speak, and people were well enough aware of his romantic escapades to make them the subject of stage parody. He is so renowned for his sexual prowess, the Catholic Church wants him condemned as a heretic. Presumably, he's a bad influence on his fellow countrymen.
Nevertheless, he doesn't really seek conquests, he protests to one of his latest conquests, but "a moment that lasts a lifetime." He says this after he has apparently just corrupted an entire nunnery. "Eternal damnation for one night with Casanova," exclaims the Church's Inquisitor to the novice whom Casanova has just seduced. "Seems fair," she responds under her breath when the Inquisitor has left.
Fortunately for Casanova, he has friends in high places, like the Doge (Tim McInnerny) of Venice, to protect him. The Doge tells him he had better get married to cover his tracks because there is only so much he can do if the Church really gets serious about hanging him. Thus does Casanova go off to find himself a wife, in a hurry.
Here is where we meet two young ladies: Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), a radical, freethinking, independent-minded woman who publishes tracts on women's rights under an assumed name; and Victoria (Natalie Dormer), a virgin whom Casanova decides to wed and with whom Francesca's brother, Giovanni (Charlie Cox), is smitten. From here, we see an opposites-attract premise develop, as Casanova becomes unexpectedly attracted to Francesca, with hidden agendas, mistaken identities, and other Shakespearean-comedy effects in full force. Unfortunately, neither the script nor the filmmakers have quite the skill needed to pull off the plot twists and machinations of a Shakespearean play, so the movie comes off more like a modern screwball comedy set in eighteen-century Venice.
As fine-looking a chap as Heath Ledger is, it's hard to see him as the type of fellow who might attract every woman of every age; he seems too much the happy-go-lucky young man about town--attractive, to be sure, but resistible. Still, it is good to see Ledger exercising his range as an actor with both this and "Brokeback Mountain" to his credit the same year. His opposite lead, Sienna Miller, as the woman who says Casanova stands for everything she writes against, plays not only the stronger character but appears to be the stronger performer as she dominates all her scenes with her co-star.
Overshadowing them both, though, is Jeremy Irons as Bishop Pucci (oh, dear), the new Inquisitor sent by Rome to investigate, condemn, and execute Casanova. "We are the Catholic Church," he says with perfect comic gravity. "We can do anything." And in a line worthy of a monarch, "Heresy is whatever I say it is." No one in the same room with Irons stands a chance of being noticed, and he's not only very good in the role, he's very funny.
But funniness is something of which the film sorely needs more. "So many windows and so little time," says Casanova to a female admirer who whispers in his ear that she will leave her window open to him. It's a throwaway line, but it's good, and the film needed more of them.
The movie attempts the kind of sweet, romantic charm that made "Shakespeare in Love" so engaging, but it hasn't enough comic delights, enough genuine romance, or a strong enough male lead to pull it off. In supporting roles, Oliver Platt as Francesca's rich, rotund, contracted fiancée is good; Omid Djalili as Casanova's droll servant is amusing; and like the other players, Lena Olin as Francesca's mother is stronger in her characterization than Ledger is in his. Oh, well....
The real star of the show, however, is Venice, the film shot on location and the city done up with fancy special effects to look as it might have looked over two-hundred-and-fifty years ago. The city scenes are quite remarkable, in a few cases breathtaking, and combined with the gorgeous scenery and luscious costumes, the movie is a pleasure to the eye.
OK, "Casanova" is not quite funny enough, not romantic enough, not adventurous enough, and certainly not sexy enough to be entirely successful. Still, it is undoubtedly good, lightweight fun. The concluding sequence is more frenetic than it needs to be, but it all ends so sweetly, the film is hard to dismiss completely.
I was somewhat put off by the opening shots, which do not have the clarity or cleanness I expected from the film, but once the actual story begins, things clear up considerably. The colors are gorgeous, largely burnished golds, deep reds, and rich earth tones that show up nicely. The video engineers also do a good job transferring most of the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to the screen, the dimensions measuring out to about 2.15:1 across my own television.
The audio is available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, with the DD 5.1 that I listened to sounding quite respectable. Dialogue and music make up most of the soundtrack, with the music leaning heavily to Rameau, Handel, Corelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi, and other composers roughly contemporary with the times. The audio spreads out nicely across the front speakers, and it has a welcome ambient glow in the surrounds. When it needs to be, the sound is also quite strong in bass and dynamic response.
The bonus items consist of the usual things: First, there's an audio commentary with director Lasse Hallstrom. He tells us that he wanted his film to be like a glass of champagne, or two, by which I assume he means light, bubbly, and effervescent, and in parts of the film he comes through; although I'm not sure he understand that much of what he calls high spirits, others see as mostly frantic. At one point in the commentary, he mentions that a critic complained the soundtrack was all Vivaldi, but he says there is really only one Vivaldi piece in the film. Be that as it may, the closing credits list at least five different Vivaldi works, so I'm not sure he wasn't just showing a little pique about some of the film's bad reviews. The next items are a five-minute extended scene, "Hidden in Plain Sight," and three featurettes: "Creating an Adventure," twelve minutes, a behind-the-scenes look at filming in Venice; "Dressing in Style," five minutes on the costume designs; and "Visions of Venice," three minutes, recreating the eighteenth-century look of the city.
In addition, there are a meager twelve scene selections, plus a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at nine other Buena Vista titles; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Casanova" may not be the sparkling glass of champagne its director intended, but it is better than flat beer, which is what most movies give us. The movie dazzles the eye, if not always the funny bone, and maybe the visuals alone are a pleasant enough way to spend an evening. "Tom Jones" or "Shakespeare in Love" it's not; pleasing fizz it is.