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Casanova Print E-mail
Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Touchstone (Buena Vista Home Entertainment)
MPAA rating: Rated R
starring: Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin, Omid Djalili, Charlie Cox, Natalie Dormer, Helen McCrory, Tim McInnerny
DVD release year: 2006
film release year: 2005
director: Lasse Hallström
running time: 108 minutes (DVD label says 111 minutes)
film rating: Four stars
sound/picture rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Giacomo Casanova was an adventurer, libertine, magician and traveler who, late in life, wrote his multi-volume memoirs. Movies have been feasting on them as long as there have been movies. Fellini made “Fellini’s Casanova” with Donald Sutherland as the rake of the Renaissance, but it was surprisingly stodgy for Fellini. The same certainly can’t be said for Lasse Hallström’s lively, funny—and underestimated—“Casanova” of 2005.

Heath Ledger was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Brokeback Mountain,” but he’s just as good in a wildly different role here. The screen story is by Michael Cristofer and Kimberly Simi; Simi co-wrote the screenplay with Jeffrey Hatcher. The dialogue may be short on really memorable lines, but it’s ripe with memorable characters and situations. It’s in classic farce mode, with almost everyone being mistaken for someone else, lots of scampering about, a little swordplay, and lots of story twists. The writers may very well have taken Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” as a model; “Casanova” is just as frothy, just as complicated, and even more stuffed with mistaken identities.

It’s the late 18th century, and Casanova is seducing his way through the beauties of Venice, but he’s under intense scrutiny by the latest Inquisition. The Doge of Venice (Tim McInnerny), the ruler of the city with the canals, warns Casanova that the only way he can be safe from imprisonment, or worse, by the Inquisition is to quickly marry. He decides on Victoria (charming Natalie Dormer), that rarest of creatures, a Venetian virgin. Neither he nor she notice that she’s already loved by young Giovanni Bruni (Charlie Cox), who lives across a canal from her.

Giovanni’s mother Francesca Andrea (Lena Olin) was herself once famous for her affairs, and has raised her daughter Francesca (Sienna Miller) to think for herself. She’s done so in a series of scandal-provoking pamphlets, written under a male pseudonym. But she confronts a gathering of scholars as herself, scandalizing the room, but attracting the attention of Casanova, flying through the auditorium. (yes)

Meanwhile, arriving in Venice is Pucci (Jeremy Irons, also in the recent “Merchant of Venice”), the regional chief inquisitor of the Inquisition—who’s targeted Casanova. Also arriving, in a palatial barge, is Paprizzio (Oliver Platt), the lard king of Genoa; he’s made a fortune in pig fat, and somewhat resembles a pig himself. He’s scheduled to marry Francesca, whom he has yet to meet.

Soon, things start getting complicated: Casanova meets whom he thinks is Giovanni in a duel, but the younger man has been replaced by his sister Francesca—better with swords than Casanova. The great lover is stunned by Francesca; he’s never met a woman quite like her—but he’s passing himself off as Paprizzio at this point, while the real Lard King is being detained elsewhere.

Then everything gets more complicated, involving balloons, fireworks, lots of rushing about and a great deal of laughter.

Many critics disparaged “Casanova,” but it’s one of the best movies of 2005, lively, funny and sexy without being exploitive. Ledger is terrific as the slightly jaded, intelligent and now besotted Casanova; he’s handsome, graceful and clearly having a great time—and this Aussie does a perfect British accent. He’s well paired with Sienna Miller, who also thoroughly gets into the spirit of things. Omid Djalili, as Lupo, Casanova’s valet, is well cast as the cynic of the piece, another very Shakespearian element. Oliver Platt, whose makeup is subtle but transforming, is also terrific as the rather dense Lard King.

Hallström made the wise decision to shoot the entire film in Venice; with one or two exceptions (the balloon, for example) is absolutely real—this is the way the city and its buildings really look. Oliver Stapleton’s wide-screen cinematography and production designer David Gropman’s choice and redecoration of locations evoke the 18th century almost flawlessly. You might be reminded of “Dangerous Beauty” from a few years ago, also set in Venice’s past.

Although many of the details of Casanova’s life are accurate—his actress mother did abandon him as a child, he did seduce all those women, the Inquisition was after him, etc.—the film’s story is almost entirely fictional. It’s a romantic farce, a variation on Casanovian themes, not an attempt to recreate anything but what the period looked like. And that it does very well.

There are occasional cutaways to puppet shows performed in Venice squares—puppet shows about the exploits of Casanova, who pays them little heed. But they’re there to show us that we needn’t take this movie any more seriously than the Venetians regarded the puppet shows. This is all Shakespearian/commedia dell’arte hijinks and romance, winking at its characters and inviting us to do the same. It’s grand fun, and deserves a better reputation than it seems to have developed.

The DVD is a good showcase for the film; it looks splendid, with its mostly dark-toned colors rendered well and the lively soundtrack (with an almost continuous score, drawn from several sources) treated with respect and fidelity. There’s little innovation in terms of the sound, but the movie doesn’t require it.

The extras are brief. Hallström’s commentary track is reasonably informative at times, pointless at other times—and simply not there at yet other times. He’s a good, intelligent director, but he’s not the best spokesperson for his movie. Other extras include a standard but well-produced “making-of” and short pieces on the costume design and on photographing Venice. The movie was not especially expensive, though it looks as though it were; some of the production footage shows that portable green screens were unfurled in Venice so present-day elements could be replaced by computer-created images of the past.

You probably didn’t see “Casanova” in theaters; it didn’t do well, at least in the U.S., but now it’s available in this inexpensive DVD. I recommend that you at least rent it; you might end up wanting to own it.

more details
sound format: Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS 5.1
aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (16X 9 enhanced)
special features: A Making-of documentary; some deleted scenes and an extended scene; commentary by director Lasse Halström; “Dressing in Style”—on the costumes; “Visions of Venice”
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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