Venice, Italy, the late 18th century. An old man writing his memoirs by candlelight recounts an episode from his past. Flashback to Casanova as a child, abandoned by his actress mother (Helen McCrory) to live with his grandmother, as his mother tearfully promises to return one day for him. Flash forward to 1753, a twenty-something Casanova (Heath Ledger), already famous in Venice as a seducer and lover narrowly escapes from the hands of the Catholic Inquisition, fleeing across rooftops and into a university classroom, where, coincidentally, two learned professors debate the rights of women. Fascinated by the exchange and impressed with the professor arguing for women's rights, Casanova is easily caught by officials of the Inquisition. Although Casanova is under the protection of the Doge of Venice, his amorous escapades have brought unwanted attention of the Catholic Church on Venice and its den of iniquity. Under pressure, the Doge gives Casanova an ultimatum, find and marry an available woman (preferably from the same or higher social class) and settle into respectable domesticity. If he refuses, Casanova faces permanent exile from Venice.
With minimal effort, Casanova finds a potential partner in Victoria (Natalie Dormer), the virginal, if ardent, daughter of a wealthy Venetian aristocrat. Victoria, however, has an anonymous admirer, Giovanni Bruni (Charlie Cox), Victoria's neighbor, who, of course, objects to the nuptials. In short order, Giovanni challenges Casanova to a duel (Casanova hides his real identity from Giovanni, taking his servant's name instead), but through unforeseen circumstances meets his physical and intellectual match in Giovanni's older sister, Francesca (Sienna Miller). Like the heroines in Jane Austen's 19th-century romantic novels, Francesca's intellectual gifts or personal desires are marginalized (at best) or treated as a threat (at worst) by the patriarchical order. Francesca approvingly reads and cites from the work of a local philosopher, Bernardo Grudi (Philip Davis), who writes sensitively and compassionately about the plight of Venetian women as if he were one.
Not surprisingly (if you've read Jane Austen, that is, or viewed one of the many adaptations of her work on television or film), Francesca's impoverished family depends on Francesca marrying a wealthy distant cousin and lard merchant, Piacco Papprizzio (Oliver Platt). Papprizzio is everything Francesca doesn't want in a partner: he's grotesquely fat, uncouth, and uncultured. Francesca wants to marry for idealized, romantic love, not for material comfort. Casanova, besotted with the fiery Francesca, develops a plan to woo her, but the plan requires multiple identity switches, more than one misunderstanding, and the minor problem of Casanova's pre-existing betrothal to Victoria to overcome. The Inquisition's operatives aren't far behind, with a new inquisitioner eager to ensnare the “vile fornicator,” Casanova reaping the benefits of his latest seduction.
Having closely followed the conventions of the romantic comedy genre, e.g., lovers separated by social forces, preconceptions, and even their own personal flaws, Casanova slips back into farce, with the requisite deceit, charades, pretense, slapstick (at the expense of the secondary characters, including a strutting, vain official of the Inquisition who favors the purple robes and gloves generally associated with the Roman Catholic pope), buffoonery (in the form of the obese Papprizzio and Casanova's fraudulent treatments to make him a more desirable suitor for Francesca), and even a masquerade. Indeed, the second act culminates during Venice's famous Carnivale, with reversals and revelations sure to follow, including pronouncements of true love and the transfer of more than one set of romantic affections for another.
As the preceding description indicates, Casanova spends little time (actually just the opening scenes) following Casanova as he engages in pursuing Venetian women, instead settling for a more conventional storyline about romantic, monogamous love and whether Casanova and Francesca can overcome the obstacles to forming a lasting relationship ((well, at least until the end credits roll). Given the romantic comedy's naturally conservative inclinations (i.e., all roads lead to heterosexual monogamy), where Casanova ends isn't far from the traditional ending found in the genre (with one notable plot turn that, despite being clever, is really a narrative cheat as we discover additional information about the narrator). Still, Casanova tries to open up the conventions of the genre by allowing Francesca a freedom of movement otherwise unavailable to women of her era or social status.
Director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog) certainly delivers what audiences have come to expect from period comedies, including attractive, charismatic leads, lavish production design, colorful costumes, engaging cinematography, and brisk pacing (with the occasional narrative cul-de-sac or plot hole). Hallström can only do so much, however, with the familiar material. Hallström deserve some credit, or rather blame, for the inexplicable addition of cringe-inducing anachronistic humor throughout the film, even if he didn't write the lines of dialogue himself. Once the conflicts have been mapped out, it's easy to foresee where the storylines will go, and how the pairs of lovers will eventually rearrange themselves. What the ultimately conventional storyline lacks in originality or unpredictability, however, is more than made up by Hallström's firm focus on an ever-escalating series of complications, misunderstandings, intentional deceits, and reversals to deliver a satisfying, if intellectually light, romantic comedy/farce.
© Mel Valentin, 23rd December, 2005
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