Mistake number one may be the title. There may be times in history when it is possible to have an appealing lead character whose primary interest in life is women, but this doesn’t seem to be it.
For centuries, people have been fascinated by Casanova, an 18th century adventurer who made and lost fortunes, escaped from prison, worked as a cleric and a spy, and whose legendary romances with hundreds of woman, as detailed in his autobiography, have made his name a label (both scornful and admiring) for generations of lotharios. His legend has inspired a number of films going back to a 1918 silent version, including portrayals by Donald Sutherland (in Il Casanova di Federico Fellini and by Richard Chamberlain in Casanova — and even impersonated by Bob Hope in Casanova’s Big Night).
In this film, Casanova’s womanizing is attributed to youthful high spirits and a supposedly endearing inability to turn down any woman who is enraptured by his charms — meaning any woman. Director Lasse Hallstrom recognizes that contemporary audiences will not have much patience with this, so he hedges his bets, making his Casanova (Heath Ledger) just a hopeless romantic ready to become completely faithful when he meets the right woman. Having abandoned the real-life Casanova’s most defining characteristic, Hallstrom and Ledger might have been better off creating a completely fictional character.
The fundamental disconnect in the personality of the movie’s hero runs straight into a collision with the movie’s tone. It tries to be a mildly post-modern version of a very traditional door-slamming farce, with a headache-inducing mish-mash of false identities and near-misses, all of which seem more of a distraction than an entertainment. Even the pleasures of on-location scenery in Venice are diminished by staging so artificial it might as well be a stage set.
Then there is mistake number two — an idea which must have seemed daring in a story conference — casting the ravishing Sienna Miller as Francesca Bruni, the spirited feminist heroine (so far, so good) but doing its best to make her look plain so we would appreciate how much Casanova loves her for her mind and spirit. Miller is still anything but ordinary, but for this kind of high-gloss romp, she there should have been no stinting on the glamour.
For the same reason, despite its subject matter, this might also have worked better as a PG-13. The sexual material in the film is not as explicit as many R-rated films, but given the choices of scenes, it is explicit enough to detract from the light-hearted and romantic tone the film is trying for.
There are moments, though, when it does achieve that light-hearted and romantic tone, and it rises like the hot-air balloon Casanova and Francesca take for a ride. Oliver Platt is sweetly silly as a clueless but open-hearted suitor, Jeremy Irons purples it up as a draconian Inquisitor, and Lena Olin contributes one of the movie’s most genuinely romantic moments as a woman who is surprised to find herself capable of being smitten. And it has swordfights and scenery and smooches. It isn’t a very good movie and it makes some fatally poor choices, but audiences in search of a cinematic bon bon may find its failures forgiveable.
Parents should know that this is the highly fictionalized story of one of the most notorious womanizers in history. While it is a light-hearted portrayal, the movie is about promescuity and what might in a less silly movie be called debauchery. The movie includes frequent sexual references and situations, some strong language, and drinking.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Casanova felt differently about Francesca than he did about the other women he had met.