'Casanova': Neither Sly Nor Seductive

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005

Poor Casanova -- expelled from a seminary, forced out of Rome, exiled from Venice, all for drink, debauchery and other scandalous behavior. He was also afflicted with sexual diseases, hounded by the Inquisition and, for his manuscripts on magic, sentenced to five years in a stifling, lead-lined cell. All this retribution, however, was nothing compared with the indignity the 18th-century lothario would suffer three centuries later.

The movie "Casanova," starring Heath Ledger, not only fetters the randy Venetian in political correctness, it condemns him to dwell inside the modern equivalent of a bad Shakespeare play.

In director Lasse Hallstrom's pat moral scheme, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova is a libertine who finally meets his match: a proto-feminist writer named Francesca (Sienna Miller) whose secret writings about gender equality cause a furor in patriarchal Venice and declaim everything Casanova stands for.

When she first meets him, Francesca doesn't know she's talking to Casanova -- he's gone incognito to escape from Pucci (Jeremy Irons), Rome's Grand Inquisitor who wants to try him for heresy. So she feels no compunction announcing that "there must be something deeply wrong" with Casanova, whose ideal of love "demands a female sacrifice every day."

So begins a drama of disguise, withheld revelations, impassioned debate about the sexes, and all those things we expect from Shakespearean plays. The problem here is, those elements feel unceremoniously filched and tiresomely obvious. Francesca comes, for instance, from Padua, just like Portia of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." And like Portia, Francesca clashes ideologically with the man she will eventually marry. But any qualitative similarities with "The Merchant of Venice," or any other drama from the English bard, are nonexistent.

The story line amounts to rom-com banality. Casanova and Francesca are doomed to marry the wrong people. He's engaged to Victoria (Natalie Dormer), a bumbling virgin who can hardly control her urges, and she's considering the pudgy hand of Papprizzio (Oliver Platt), who may not be much to look at but has the money to solve her family's financial woes. Victoria doesn't know it, for instance, but she has a better admirer: Giovanni (Charlie Cox), who loves her intensely and happens to be Francesca's brother. And it isn't long before Papprizzio becomes aware of the charms and availability of Francesca's mother (Lena Olin).

You'll never guess how things turn out.

Even the real Venice, where this was filmed, looks like a studio back lot, thanks to Hallstrom's over-bright lighting and heavy-handed decor.

And it's too bad Platt chose this occasion to deliver one of his funniest performances. As the flubby Papprizzio, he's a comi-tragic, deeply needy baby-man who never quite believes all those comments about his ample girth.

If only "Casanova" had really delved into its subject's life, it would have found a more complex character, not just the philanderer who measured his life in women and whose conscience took a back seat to sensual pleasure. According to his memoirs, Casanova was, in different chapters of his life, a Freemason, clergyman, spy, secretary, soldier and violinist. Instead, Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog," "The Cider House Rules," "Chocolat") has used Casanova's mystique for half of a dumb romantic morality play, one which expects us to believe that after meeting one centered, smart young woman, Casanova suddenly learned to get over himself!

Casanova (108 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company