Casanova (2005)

Starring: Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Lena Olin, Ken Stott, Oliver Platt, Tim McInnerny, Omid Dijalili, Charlie Cox, Natalie Dormer, Phil Davis

Directed by: Lasse Hallström

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Heath Ledger as Casanova and Sienna Miller as Francesca Bruni in Casanova

The words 'Lasse Hallström' and 'bawdy sex romp' aren't naturally associated in my mind. In films such as What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Chocolat, the Swedish director flips life's coin and observes with clarity and compassion as it spins between comedy and tragedy, before finally, lovingly, allowing it to land happy side up. So why, you may ask, would this gentle soul decide to direct a film about the legendary 18th century libertine, Giacomo Casanova?

Well for starters, Casanova isn't a bawdy sex romp at all. Farcical convent scenes and the odd ecstatic waggling foot aside, this is a film about love rather than lust.

Heath Ledger as Casanova and Tim McInnery as the Doge

The action begin with Casanova is in trouble (blame those naughty nuns.). In particular, he's in trouble with the Church, and Ken Stott's uptight Dalfonso - the most Presbyterian Catholic bishop ever seen on screen. The Doge of Venice (Tim McInnerny in full on Sir Percy nice-but-dim mode) decides that if he's to avoid exile, the notorious rake must find himself a wife. Casanova settles on a suitably gorgeous wide-eyed virgin, Victoria Donato (Natalie Dormer) - but that's before his heart is captured by the spirited Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), a 20th century feminist intellectual in the comely body of an 18th century Venetian beauty. She, of course, is engaged to someone else, a Genoan merchant called Paprizzio (Oliver Platt), while her useless mopey brother Giovanni (Charlie Cox) is in love with Victoria.

You get the picture. Gradually, the motley crew of characters becomes embroiled in a tangled web of lies and charades as complex and confusing as the network of canals and narrow alleys that crisscross La Serenissima herself. Venice is, after all, the city of masks, and in this convoluted tale of Shakespearean crossdressing, intrigue, trickery and mistaken identity, everyone is wearing a mask. Most people, in fact, are wearing at least two.

Wigged and ready - Heath Ledger as Casanova and Oliver Platt as Paprizzio

All this would perhaps seem confusing, were it not for the fact that it's blindingly obvious how things will turn out in the end (give or take a crazy deus ex macchina or two). That's not necessarily a criticism either - the happy predictability is, like the terrible 1960s stunts and 'special' effects (the true awfulness of which have not been seen since Condorman), all part of the cosy, old fashioned charm of this ultimately enjoyable and likeable film.

The other aspect of this film that makes it such a joy is the cast. Heath Ledger looks suitably handsome as the sex god Casanova, although he lacks the swashbuckling sex appeal of Johnny in Pirates of the Caribbean, Vincent Perez in Le Bossu or Errol Flynn in just about anything. Cute as he is, he just doesn't have that sparky, roguish charm that has nothing to do with looks (or precious little, anyway) and everything to do with Attitude.

Sienna Miller likewise is charming but forgettable. That sounds bitchy, but it's not meant to be - in fact, I really rather liked her, and I only hope that her somewhat faceless prettiness will in fact stand her in good stead, allowing her, chameleon-like, to take on range of diverse and challenging roles, in the style of Gary Oldman or Charlize Theron.

Jeremy Irons as Inquisitor Pucci in Casanova

But it's not really the central protagonists who bring Casanova alive. Like the recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, it's much more fun to ignore the somewhat unconvincing love plot and watch what's going on in the background instead, because it's the cameo characters who are having all the fun. From comic Omid Dijalili as Casanova's long suffering servant Lupo to an effervescent Lena Olin as Francesca's mother to ITV drama favourite Phil Davies as, um, a bloke on the rack, the supporting cast are clearly having a (masked) ball. The marvellous Jeremy Irons is on towering top form as the fearsome but accident prone Inquisitor Pucci (and his wig, which appears to be made from a coconut hair doormat, deserves star billing on its own). But it's a red faced, 'rotund' Oliver Platt who really steals the show as the pompous lard king Paprizzio, delivering a perfectly nuanced comic performance that's worth the price of a ticket on its own.

The other star of the show is, of course, La Serenissima herself. Filmed on location in Venice, the film conveys perfectly the decadent romance and decaying opulence of that magical city. Add to the glorious settings some sumptuous costumes (and some fantastic wigs) and a lovely Mozart-esque score and you've a visual and aural treat in store - if you can ignore some of the sillier lines that pepper the script, that is.

Like the city in which it's set, Casanova is busy, confusing and unashamedly superficial, but it's also romantic, charming and crowd pleasing. Part Blackadder, part Monty Python, and just a little bit Carry On, Casanova is a bit of mess, but that doesn't stop it from being glorious, feelgood, escapist fun. Again, the coin has definitely landed happy side up.

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