Casanova: Hallstrom’s Version of Romantic Lover, Starring Heath Ledger

Lasse Hallstrom’s fluffy entertaining version of the world’s most notorious lover is splendidly played by Heath Ledger. In sensibility and style, this “Casanova” recalls the decadent costume drama “Dangerous Liaisons,” the buoyant cross-dressing comedy “Shakespeare in Love,” and Richard Lester’s dynamic “Musketeers” film series.

A smart, sophisticated farce about romance and mischief, “Casanova” brings a contemporary spin to the tale’s celebrated character. The story is set in 1753, when Casanova was a young man of 25, at the prime of his sexual prowess. New angle is provided by the idea that, while Casanova is an irresistible lover, he really loses his heart to the only woman who will not succumb to his charms.

Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi’s screenplay, from a story by Simi and Michael Cristofer, borrows freely from Shakespeare and other period writers. Along with clever dialogue and deliciously pointed humor, “Casanova” boasts light-hearted romance that’s not only confined to Casanova but also applies to the other characters, young and old.

After stumbling with mediocre, middlebrow fare, like “Chocolat,” “The Shipping News,” and “Unfinished Life,” Hallstrom is again on terra ferma with “Casanova,” his most fully realized picture since “Something to Talk About,” a decade ago. One doesn’t associate Hallstrom with broad farcical comedy, and indeed, this is a departure for a director who’s better known for such dramas as “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “The Cider House Rules.”

It’s been a while since we saw a sex comedy of this entertaining sharpness and exuberant tone. “Casanova” mixes every brand of comedy–classical, screwball, and physical–with strong dramatic and romantic elements. With the right marketing, Touchstone should be able to position “Casanova” as a prestige film and genuine crowd-pleaser–a date movie par excellence–for the big holiday seasons.

The city of Venice, where the movie was entirely shot, has never looked so lushly beautiful and alluring on screen. The glorious setting is the perfect background for a tale of love, lust, and mistaken identity that only occasionally stoops to ludicrous posturing and vulgar farce. There’s a quality of joy and wonder to the whole movie that you either buy into or resist, at your own peril.

The story affords Hallstrom a chance to tackle a favorite literary legend, but from an original and contemporary POV. This is a much more upbeat portrait of Casanova than any seen before, in sharp contrast to the last big screen version, “Fellini’s Casanova” (1976), an earnest, dour film that centered on an older Casanova (played by Donald Sutherland).

“Casanova” tells a story about disguises and mistaken identities, populated by individuals who are never what they seem to be because they’re always hiding behind masks and costumes. In this movie, all the characters desperately try to be someone else-most of them for lust–before coming to the conclusion that the only way to fulfill their desires is by being themselves. The identity theme, which is central, is nicely interwoven throughout the narrative. On another level, “Casanova” is a modern story of an extraordinary man who finally meets a woman who’s not impressed with who he is, or with his reputation. By transplanting that idea to Venice in the 1750s, the movie becomes full of surprises.

Casanova (Ledger) has become such a scandalously famous lover that he is lampooned by acting troupes. And sure enough, the Inquisition is after him for debauchery, heresy and fornication. The film’s tone is established early won, when they raid a nunnery in pursuit of Casanova and he flees his complicit novice nun with his pants down; the other nuns are sad to see him leave! Casanova’s protector, the Doge (Tim McInnerny), tells him that to be saved from the Inquisition, he must leave Venice forever or get married. As a result, Casanova and his servant Lupo (Omid Djalili) begin a search of the perfect bride for him.

In another part of town, Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller) is awaiting the arrival of her fianc, Paprizzio, Genoa lard mogul, whom she has never met but must marry at the desperate wish of her widowed mother (Lena Olin). Francesca’s younger, romantic brother, Giovanni (Charlie Cox) spends his time spying on his neighbor, the virginal Victoria (Natalie Dormer), but he’s too shy to approach her directly.

When Casanova and Victoria meet, she reacts with the kind of lust that makes her behave silly and improbably, like falling down or snapping thick wood with her fingers while on a boat. They get engaged, which annoys the immature Giovanni, who challenges Casanova to a duel not realizing who he is. Smarter than her brother, Francesca knows that Giovanni is not good with a sword. Taking his place, she fights Casanova to a draw, and when she’s revealed as a beautiful woman, Casanova is smitten. Upon discovery that Francesca favors the writing of a philosopher whose books espouse a woman’s perspective, Casanova adopts that philosophy in his courtship, not realizing that she is the writer of those books using a nom-de-plume.

This season, with three very different movies to his credit, Ledger emerges as a major Hollywood player with considerable charm and impressive range. Here he offers a comic counterbalance to his grimly gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain,” Drawing on his charm, allure, elegance, but also vulnerability, Ledger embodies all of Casanova’s qualities, then allows them to fall apart in poignant moments of heartbreak, while suggesting potential to become a better man through authentic love. Ledger possesses the necessary dramatic and comedic skills, and also offers a physical prowess that’s invaluable to the film’s sword-changing, chased-filled action.

In this conception, Casanova is a man with an incredible capacity to empathize with women, able to talk to each one of them in a different, special way. Casanova grabs the chance to convince Francesca that there’s a worthwhile man underneath the myth, and that he will do whatever he must to prove that to her. After a lifetime of easy romantic conquests, Casanova finally collides with the only woman who’s his romantic, intellectual, and physical equal.

Francesca Bruni is a Renaissance writer whose wicked wit, savvy smarts, and classic beauty make her Venice’s most formidable woman. Initially, she has little use for Casanova’s attempts at conquest, but she begins to change when she recognizes something deeper and more sublime in his whimsy. The filmmakers perceive Francesca as essentially a modern woman, strong-willed, and ahead of her time.

With her beauty, feistiness, and smarts, newcomer Sienna Miller (better known until know as Jude Law’s companion) makes a good partner for Ledger. Their scenes together bring to mind the witty bickering and eventual reconciliation in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

The secondary characters in this truly ensemble piece are just as important as the leads, and being played by such brilliant actors as Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, and Lena Olin, add immeasurably to the film’s overall fun.

Bishop Pucci is Casanova’s chief nemesis, the Pope’s enforcer and probing detective, who plots to catch Casanova in an act of infidelity. Cashing in on his trademarks as an actor, his cool Englishness, precise command of language, and dry, sarcastic way of speaking, Jeremy Irons is all drollery, bringing out Pucci’s belief in his own infallibility and arrogance. Pucci’s ineptness and stumbling efforts to snare Casanova turns his character into a seventeenth century Inspector Clouseau (immortalized by Peter Sellers in the “Pink Panther” pictures).

Paprizzio, the “lard king,” is another bumbling fool and the film’s most outrageous character. A master of comedy, who seems to be mimicking here Orson Welles, Oliver Platt conveys the requisite elements of farcical foolishness with a mixture of bathos, pathos, and comedy. Though at first appearing to be brusque and self-confident, he begins to reveal self-doubts and a touch of self-contempt as the story goes along.

Like the other characters, the seemingly naive Victoria is a shifty one. She begins as a young woman promised to Casanova, but then changes her skin by cleverly scheming up a plot against him. Following the tradition of such stories, Casanova has a companion, Lupo, a right-hand man with whom he shares a witty rapport. Physically, they could not have been more different: Whereas Casanova is tall, blond and good-looking, Lupo is short, fat, and bold. Together, they represent another variation of the “Odd Couple,” with each frustrating and being frustrated by the other.

The spirit of joy and creativity that characterizes the cast extends to the entire crew, headed by production designer David Gropman, in his sixth collaboration with Hallstrom, and ace cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Gropman and Stapleton do an excellent job of shooting as many as 60 locations in and around Venice, including the iconic Piazza San Marco, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, and the Palazzo Ducale, the famous pink-and-white gothic palace, one of the city’s architectural highlights. Hallstrom makes excellent use of the design’s defining elements of water, canals, and boats, orchestrating some bravura chase scenes.