Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director who once made Abba: The Movie, relocated to Hollywood in the early nineties after winning international acclaim for My Life As A Dog. His first American films, quirky comedies like Once Around and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? showed great promise. In 1999, he made The Cider House Rules, a decent enough John Irving adaptation that received a crop of Academy Award nominations it didn't deserve. Since then, Hallström has been churning out Oscar bait - middle-brow "prestige" films like Chocolat and The Shipping News which are really just soap operas and romantic comedies dressed up with classy stars, literary pedigrees and barely-touched-upon social issues.
Hallström's latest film, Casanova is a silly farce pretending to have something to say about women's rights and religious oppression. In fact it has nothing interesting to say about either issue. Its messages and indeed much of its plot are cribbed from two 1998 movies. One is The Honest Courtesan (aka Dangerous Beauty), which stars Catherine McCormack as a kind of 15th Century Italian geisha who ruffles the feathers of the Catholic Church. Like Casanova, The Honest Courtesan is set in Venice, it climaxes with its heroine facing the Inquisition and it co-stars Oliver Platt.
The most blatant inspiration however is Shakespeare In Love: both films take a famous historical figure, give him an anachronistic feminist love interest and mix romantic comedy with semi-serious commentary on the mores of the time. While Shakespeare In Love works like a charm, Casanova follows rather clumsily in its footsteps and fails to reconcile its serious side with its broad humour.
Heath Ledger stars as the notorious Giacomo Casanova, stud-about-town in 18th Century Venice. The women of the city love him but the Catholic authorities think he's doing the work of Satan. In an opening that establishes the film's comic tone, he's caught seducing a novice nun ("She was hardly a novice", Ledger smirks) and he's captured by soldiers after a slapstick chase over the city's rooftops. The rake is saved from execution by the city's ruler, the Doge (Tim McInnerny), who likes Casanova and tips him off that the Inquisition in Rome is out to make an example of him. The Doge advises his promiscuous friend to quickly find himself a wife and settle down.
Reluctantly, Casanova acquiesces and he chooses a beautiful young virgin, Victoria (Natalie Dormer). It emerges however that the lovely Victoria is already the apple of a young man's eye. The puppyish Giovanni (Charlie Cox) is appalled to see his dream girl engaged to such a womaniser and he challenges Casanova to a duel. There is a spirited swordfight, after which Casanova discovers that his masked opponent was not Giovanni but the boy's protective elder sister Fransesca (Sienna Miller). The arch seducer can't help but feel attracted to this beautiful and willful feminist. Unfortunately for him, Fransesca doesn't believe in casual sex and she's already promised in marriage to a merchant (Oliver Platt). She also knows enough about Casanova's reputation to find him loathesome. It's just as well then that Casanova is posing as his own best friend and she doesn't recognise him!
As you can tell, the set-up is contrived and the plot is far too complicated - there's also the Inquisition, the arrival of the merchant and Fransesca's heretical writings to contend with. So much screen time goes into keeping all the story's balls in the air that there's very little room for a credible romance to develop between Casanova and Fransesca. It's difficult to see how any screenplay could turn the 18th Century equivalent of Ron Jeremy into a credible romantic hero anyway. Writers Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberley Simi try to work up some sympathy for him by showing his mother abandoning him as a child but this just comes off as the cheapest kind of pop psychology. Worse, the film isn't very funny. A few good lines notwithstanding, most of its comedy is laboured farce based on mistaken identities
Heath Ledger is strangely subdued in a lead role that calls for a showy star turn. He's never convincing as a seducer of thousands of women, nor does the film give him much chance to be. After the convent conquest at the beginning, Casanova remains as chastely smitten as a Hugh Grant character in a Richard Curtis film. He's depicted more as a sex symbol than a debaucher. Equally unpersuasive is his love for Francesca. His feelings for her (and hers for him) seem dictated by the script. Ledger's played a bad boy who falls for a free-spirited young woman before, in his breakthrough film 10 Things I Hate About You and he did a much better job.
Sienna Miller, her hair dyed brunette, does more or less what you'd expect with the "spunky-feminist-heroine-in-a-period-piece" role. She doesn't stand out amongst competition like Helena Bonham-Carter, Gwyneth Paltrow and Keira Knightley. Of course she has a weaker script. Miller was a lot more impressive given a meatier role in the Alfie remake.
Oliver Platt and Tim McInnerny are the only cast members who manage to rise above the material, both by working their own brands of comic acting into their characters. Jeremy Irons, who plays the chief inquisitor, has his moments but the script can't decide whether his character is meant to be menacing or a pratfalling nincompoop.
Technically Casanova is first rate. The special effects are marvellous: the highlight of the movie is a balloon ride over Venice at night. Like Munich, Casanova makes effective use of CGI and art direction to convince us that we're watching a film shot in another era. This is no small achievement and Lasse Hallström is unquestionably a gifted filmmaker. It's his choice of material that's in doubt.