By Shawn McKenzie 01/07/2006
This past year has been a banner year for Heath Ledger. Before 2005, the last movie I saw him in was the truly awful 2003 movie The Order. He took 2004 off, but he came back in 2005 with five movies. His first one was an indie that I’ve never heard of called Candy. The second one was a supporting role in the just-okay Lords of Dogtown, where he was truly the highlight. That was followed by another just-okay Terry Gilliam movie The Brothers Grimm. Then we get to his Golden Globe-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain…a movie that I was one of the only critics who hated it. Finally, we come to the subject of this review…Casanova. I don’t know if the timing of this movie was decided upon by the studio or Ledger following the hype of the gay cowboy movie, but it is one of the best roles of his career.
When he was a kid, 11-year-old Giovanni Giacomo Casanova (Eugene Simon) was the sickly son of two actors. His father Gaetano died when he was nine, but his mother Zanetta (Helen McCrory) went away to pursue her acting career, leaving Casanova with his grandmother, Marzia Farussi (Lidia Biondi.) Fast forward to 1753 in Venice, and 28-year-old Casanova (Ledger) is the locally born soldier, spy, diplomat, writer, and adventurer. He is chiefly known though as one of the most famous lovers of all time, which gets him into trouble often. The movie introduces the adult Casanova as he is corrupting the innocence of a young nun named Sister Beatrice (Lauren Cohan.) As he is leaving the nun’s bedroom at the nunnery, the local Vatican Inquisition constable Dalfonso (Ken Stott) pursues him. Casanova flees into an academy where he spots pre-modern feminist Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), dressed up like a man and lecturing to the state of heterosexual relations in the modern world before a male audience. She reveals herself to the audience, which horrifies them but bewitches Casanova. He manages to evade the authorities, but his local protector, the Doge (Tim McInnerny), tells him that if he wants to avoid arrest, he has to promise to settle down and get married (see…the Vatican has it out for Casanova, because they don’t like heretics doing things like fooling around with nuns.) Casanova and his manservant Lupo (Omid Djalili) comply with the Doge’s wishes and set out to find a proper mate for him to get married. He finds the last virgin in Venice, Victoria Donato (Natalie Dormer), who is more than willing to have him deflower her (she keeps accidentally destroying things in her lust for him.) Posing as Señor Salvato, he strikes up a deal with her father (Stephen Greif) to marry his daughter for his title. Unfortunately, her neighbor across the canal, Giovanni (Charlie Cox), who happens to be the younger brother of Francesca, is ticked off, because he has a crush on Victoria, though she doesn’t even know that he exists. His sister happens to have her own set of problems as well. Her late father pre-arranged a marriage for her with a portly rich businessman named Paprizzio (Oliver Platt), the “lard king of Venice,” before he died, and she is not happy about it. Her mother Andrea (Lena Olin) is a poor widow now, so Francesca is trying to accept the thought of a marriage to a man she does not love or has never even met. Back to the problems of Giovanni…he challenges Casanova to a duel, but Francesca stands in for him during the swordfight dressed as a man again. When Casanova realizes who she is, he’s immediately infatuated again with her, but he lies about his identity because he wants her heart, and he knows that she would not like him because of his legendary reputation. He pretends to be Paprizzio (obviously Francesca’s father didn’t describe the man to her before he died), and he manages to at least charm her mother. In order to keep up with the ruse, Casanova intercepts the real Paprizzio as he arrives in Venice by boat and tells the lard king that he is really a local renegade author named Bernardo Guardi, who has become popular with the public but has infuriated the Inquisition with his controversial writings. Coincidentally, Francesca has adopted the same nom de plume, since she is the real author going by Guardi. She made a deal with the actual Guardi (Phil Davis) to adopt his name so that she could continue with her writings in anonymity. Back to Casanova…Paprizzio is too nervous to meet his new bride because he is self-conscious about his weight, so Casanova has the man stay at his place and go through a series of weird weight loss methods in order to keep him from the public view. Meanwhile, the Vatican has brought in a no-nonsense authority named Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons) to deal with both Casanova and Guardi, who are both heretics. Casanova has to avoid Pucci and keep his various aliases straight…all the while continuing to woo the love of his life Francesca.
Did the studio bring out this movie to capitalize on the hot buzz of Ledger’s career, or because Ledger wanted to be in a movie that was the polar opposite of Brokeback? I predict it is the former, because I think that Ledger is a good actor who picks his roles based on the love of the character…not because of self-image problems or the need to assert his masculinity. Sometimes an actor can work steadily, but the studios take their time with production and release schedules, and you see an actor’s movies stack up back-to-back. That happened for Terrence Howard this past year, and now it has happened to Ledger.
I haven’t seen all of director Lasse Hallström’s movies (including last year’s An Unfinished Life), but I like some of his flicks. I probably like 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and 1999’s The Cider House Rules the best. Despite being nominated for Best Picture, I wasn’t that crazy about 2000’s Chocolat (that slot should have gone to Almost Famous.) His 1995 movie Something to Talk About was average, and I hated 2001’s The Shipping News. This movie has to be my favorite of his so far. He has had comedic elements in most of his movies, but this is the first movie of his that I can think of that is an actual comedy. Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi wrote the screenplay based on a story by Simi and Michael Christofer. Hatcher and Christofer are playwrights along with being screenwriters, while this is Simi’s first project. Almost everything about the life of the real Casanova has been exaggerated, including his legendary lovemaking skills, but that’s part of the fun of the flick. My major problem would be that it wasn’t bawdy enough. The movie has an R-rating, yet there is no explicit language, no nudity, and no graphic violence (even the swordplay doesn’t produce any blood.) If I were in control of the MPAA, I would have given it a PG-13.
The cast for the most part were excellent. Ledger was a perfect cad. I wasn’t that crazy about Miller, and I didn’t feel there was much chemistry between her and Ledger. Dormer was a hoot for her brief part, along with Irons, Djalili, and Platt (Platt once again stole the show, as he did recently in The Ice Harvest.)
I’m actually surprised that Casanova hasn’t gotten any award nominations. I would have figured that it would have right up the Golden Globes’ alley in the Best Comedy or Musical category. With all of the publicity surrounding Ledger…couldn’t they have shared some for this flick, or does he have to be a gay cowboy in love to get some award lovin’?
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