It's 1753 and legendary ladies' man Casanova feels the heat of the Vatican closing in. After a lifetime of notoriety in Venice, news of his seduction of a novice nun has finally travelled as far as Rome and outrage has returned in kind. Thanks to the beaurocracy of the Catholic Church, Casanova is saved from the arrival of the papacy via the intervention of local prosecutor for the Inquisition, Dalfonso (Ken Stott), but even he is impotent against The Doge (Tim McInnerny) a powerful politician and friend of Casanova. But as much as The Doge removes the threat of the Inquisition, Casanova is not entirely free to conduct himself as before. Rather, The Doge offers him a choice - take a wife and remain faithful to her of face expulsion from Venice. Casanova has but three days.
Consoling himself at the university, he listens to a lecture on the feminist philosopher Bernardo Guardi and watches the speaker send a small hot air balloon over the heads of those seated in the later, all of which is later described as heresy and witchcraft such is the spirit of the times. But Casanova has no time to dwell on such matters and via a visit to the estate of Donato (Stephen Greif), he is soon engaged to the virginal Victoria (Natalie Dormer). Unfortunately, Casanova is not the only man with an interest in the young girl and soon the other, Giovanni Bruni (Charlie Cox), has challenged him to a duel, meeting at sunrise the following day. Bested in the challenge, Casanova finds himself defeated by one Bruni but not the one he had expected. Instead, it was the beautiful Francesca (Sienna Miller) who had drawn swords against him. Smitten, Casanova, the renowned stealer of ladies' hearts, finds himself drawn to Francesca but that he cannot have her for she is both engaged to Papprizzio (Oliver Platt) - "the lard king of Genoa" - and is inspired by Bernardo Guardi, believing that, as a woman, she is not to be possessed as one might own a pig.
With the papacy finally tiring of news of Casanova, the full might of the Inquisition is dispatched and arrives in Venice to bring Casanova to justice. If indeed a heretic like Bernardo Guardi (Phil Davis) has his neck burned by the hangman's rope at the same time, then all the better...
"New!" That's all the sticker on the cover says. In white on a red background..."New!" No, "Starring Academy Award Nominee Heath Ledger!" Nothing about ex-Play Away presenter Jeremy Irons and certainly nothing about it starring Sienna Miller, favourite of the celebrity press and, following Jude Law's affair with his children's nanny, a wronged woman. But it's that absence of Heath Ledger's Oscar nomination that sticks out. It's there on the back but normally you can't stop a Hollywood studio from crying out the honours bestowed on the cast of its latest film. And yet here...nothing. Nothing but, "From The Director of Chocolat!"
Or is it that Heath Ledger's nomination came from his portrayal of a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, which may not be the kind of role that sits easily with his playing of the world's greatest lover. A touch homophobic? Unlikely, more that Buena Vista knew that an audience for Casanova may have been unable to separate the art from the artist. Cosmopolitan audiences may well have been less confused over the physical similarities between Heath Ledger and Ennis, the character he played in Ang Lee's film but I suspect that Buena Vista were less optimistic when their thoughts turned to the slack-jawed viewers who braved the tumbleweeds and the thrill of a tractor pull to make it to the theatres. Though, I grant you, the moonshine-swilling residents of Incest County may not be lining up for Casanova when there's a Smokey And The Bandit triple-bill on at Cletus' Hardware Store and Movie House!
Yet it's ironic that straight actor Ledger is much too subdued in this role to be entirely effective, where an openly homosexual one such as Rupert Everett would have been much more memorable. Ledger may well be a handsome devil - even more so when dressed in his finest for Casanova's attending of a carnival - but he lacks the true spirit of a dandy that Everett channeled so well with his portrayal of Christopher Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love or as King Charles II in Stage Beauty. Unfortunately, Ledger sets the tone for the entire film and there's nothing that the equally dull Sienna Miller can do, with the two of them making something of a charmless couple. Proving that acres of column inches mean nothing when you step in front of the movie camera, Miller brings absolutely nothing to the role of Francesca and is shown as being shamefully inexperienced - and imagine how bad she must be when I can say this - particularly when put alongside Lena Olin and Oliver Platt. Finally, that the twist in the film's final reel depends on her playing a man in a court of law, it doesn't help that she carries off the least convincing gender-swap since Les Dawson last heaved his bosom.
The real problem with Casanova, though, is that it remembers far too late that it ought to be a romantic farce in the manner of both Shakespeare in Love and Stage Beauty. At first, it does tend to take itself rather seriously but then compensates for this by maintaining no sense of structure to its comedy - Casanova leaping over rooftops and evading the Inquisition are well-placed but having Grand Inquisitor Pucci as little more than a buffoon seems out of place. A better film would have given him moments of brilliance to offset the ridiculous but there's no such contrast here, Pucci remains an idiot in his every scene. Even Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths) had his moments in Stage Beauty, despite him being a thoroughly ill-tempered character, but Pucci has none here, simply stupidity piled upon idiocy.
What the BBC's recent updating of Shakespeare showed was that romantic farces like Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew, which featured a performance by Rufus Sewell that shames that of Heath Ledger's here, was that the nonsense of mistaken identities, affairs of the heart and of gender confusion could all work in the right setting. Venice of 1753 ought to have been the perfect setting but not even the beauty of the city can distract one from the failure of its stars to find romance, two stars who fail to attract the eye of one another, never find those of the audience.
Any complaints that one might have had over the film are more concerned with the actual film than of the disc. Though it looks good, Casanova is rather dull-looking and the green-screen work is no better than had this been released a decade ago, whilst there's a constant accompaniment of harpsichord that becomes very trying over nearly two hours. The few minutes of accordion between stations on the London Underground are but nothing when compared to the hours of harpsichord here.
However, the DVD really isn't at all bad in the sense that it captures all of this very well. Both the dialogue and harpsichord - if anything, there's more of the latter than the former - both sound very good, particularly on the DTS 5.1 track, with there being obvious use of the rear channels and of the .1 LF channel. The picture is sharp and clear, which complements off both the well-designed sets and locations and the grain in the image and although Hallstrom never quite settles on a scene for long enough to appreciate it, there's the sense that he and his crew did well to bring the Venice of 1753 to the city as it is today. Though, that may be because Venice is largely unchanged from how it was at that time.
Audio Commentary: If the idea of the man behind the shambolic ABBA: The Movie commenting on his Casanova for just short of two hours is appealing, then this will be for you. However, much as director Lasse Hallström does make the occasional contribution, there are many moments when he offers nothing and, less fortunately, what he does have to say is often very dull. When a scene overlooks Piazza San Marco, Hallström ponders the use of digital extras, whereas, during The Doge's defence of Casanova, he wonders aloud about the design of the hats. Saying so little about such a legendary figure as Casanova - and having made a film lacking in any of the passion its hero was meant to have possessed - you do have to wonder if Hallström really has any interest in the material.
Extended Sequence (5m34s): Yes, just the one. Subtitled, Hidden In Plain Sight, this is a longer version of Casanova's escape from The Doge's ball and Pucci's meeting with Victoria, which ends with the Inquisition's arrest of Casanova. There's very little that appears to have been added - nothing of consequence, at least - making this largely without interest.
Features: There are three included here - Creating An Adventure (12m51s), Dressing In Style (5m19s) and Visions of Venice (3m51s) - all of which are fully explained by their titles. Taken together, they do form something of a making-of but there's precious little detail in them and certainly not enough to satisfy anyone with an interest in the production.
I longed for them to hang, both Casanova and Francesca, not only for the thought of the film showing some spark of originality - I doubt there's even been a romantic comedy where the lead actors are executed after they kiss - but also to see the Inquisition flex its muscle. As a Catholic, I have a great deal of time for Pucci's, "We are the Catholic Church. We can do anything!" - not for nothing is the Catholic Church the villains of two Dan Brown novels, of which I'm actually rather proud of - but Casanova is such an obvious film that Pucci is no more than a thinly-drawn caricature of the Inquisition, barely a step away from the cushion-bearing cardinals of Monty Python. Shame.
There's little to recommend this film when both Shakespeare in Love and Stage Beauty are available and just as enjoyable now as they were at the time of their release. Funny, genuinely witty and with a set of remarkably good roles, particularly those of Rupert Everett, they're all the things that Casanova is not. Casanova is a film that gets lost behind Ledger and Miller's dull performances, both of whom are woefully out of step with the material. Ledger has and will do better but Miller, who has less presence than the water in the Venician canals, is probably better suited to the gossip columns where, one hopes, she'll remain.