A splendid cast shines in this period comedy, along with sumptuous costumes, lavish set design and the city of Venice.

By:Bob Brown
   Casanova: the name is synonymous with promiscuous lover. It’s curious that the man’s multi-volume biography, The Story of My Life, was rendered into English only as late as the 1960s by noted translator Willard R. Trask, who won a National Book Award for his efforts.
   How much of this massive autobiography is reliable? No one can tell. Giacomo Casanova embroidered his self-account for effect. This film, directed by Lasse Hallstrom from a script by Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) and Kimberly Simi, goes even further. It imagines a Casanova who would abandon his libidinous life if he were to meet the one woman worthy of his love. There is little left of the real Casanova’s account here, except his name and the setting, 18th-century Venice.
   The movie is an excuse for a comic romp through the gorgeous scenery of that city, which has, to date, starred in more than 300 films of various lengths. To portray the dark-complexioned charmer that Casanova is, the casting directors chose a fair-haired Perth native, Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger is competing with himself on other screens this season as the more amorously challenged cowboy Ennis in Brokeback Mountain. The man certainly has range, and is at home anywhere.
   A splendid cast has been assembled in support of him, notably Sienna Miller as the intellectual Francesca Bruni, who writes liberal-minded treatises on male-female relations and publishes them under a male nom de plume. Francesca’s mother, Andrea (Lena Olin), only wants her daughter to fulfill her father’s contract to wed a wealthy Genoese lard merchant (yes, lard, not land), Paprizzio (Oliver Platt, prosthetically enblubbered). Meanwhile, Francesca’s younger brother, the virginal Giovanni (Charlie Cox), pines for his dream lover, the dewy and equally virginal girl next door, Victoria (newcomer Natalie Dormer).
   The film bumbles along in the first half hour to establish the romantic beauty of Venice and the carnal appetites of Casanova for all the city’s beauties. This is balanced against Francesca’s mission to undermine the male-dominated academy and the oppression of the Inquisition. Things don’t liven up until Casanova is pushed into a duel by Giovanni, who is angered that Casanova (whose identity he doesn’t know) is betrothed for convenience to Victoria (who does know Casanova’s identity). This resembles a period comedy, with genders and names shifting on a whim.
   Casanova winds up dueling Francesca, who is en masque on behalf of her less sword-worthy brother. When she is revealed, Casanova finds she is a formidable opponent and a worthy object of his devotion, whom he strives to win. The comedy lifts off when the corpulent Paprizzio arrives in his pork-fat merchant ship ("a tub of lard" as one of his aides points out), seeking his first glimpse of the betrothed Francesca.
   Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons), however, has come to save Venice from its evil ways. Particularly, he has come to hang the licentious Casanova, whose appetite has made Venice a bit more of a moral cesspool than it already was. The pace heats up as Casanova heads off Paprizzio by trickery, evades Pucci, and strings along Francesca until he can clinch the prize.
   In lieu of sparkling wit, the script gets by on situations and obvious puns. Were it not for the sumptuous costumes, the lavish set design and the city itself, the film would scarcely hold audience attention. The bright spots in this talented cast are the comic skills of Mr. Platt, who is a subtle visual comedian, Mr. Irons (who is worth watching even in minor roles), and Ms. Olin, an even more seductive actress than her much younger co-stars. Mr. Ledger, so good in Brokeback Mountain, waltzes (or should we say minuets) his way through this much lighter material.
   For those who pay attention to period accuracy (since so much depends on the historical setting), a climactic chase scene with a hot-air balloon is jarring. The French Montgolfier brothers didn’t test the first hot-air balloons until the 1780s, fully 25 years after this Venetian escapade was said to occur.
   What is a constant pleasure, aside from richly atmospheric cinematography by Oliver Stapleton (The Shipping News), is a nonstop Baroque score stitched together by French composer Alexandre Desplat, with generous helpings from Vivaldi, Corelli, Telemann and many more.
   All in all, this is light entertainment with splendid set designs and much to recommend a trip to Italy. Much like a fine handmade paperweight of Venetian glass, it’s gorgeous to look at and entirely unnecessary, which is all one expects, unless you think papers have a tendency to float up into the ether untethered.
Rated R. Contains some sexual content.