The enduring legend of Giacomo Casanova, started with his 18th century diaries, has been celebrated with innumerable screen manifestations, most recently with David Tennant gaining a nation’s notice in the title role of the BBC TV series.
Prior to this The Divine Comedy released a whole album of songs inspired by the Venetian “gambler, eroticist and spy”. Movies have celebrated him too – amongst the stars who’ve brought him to life are Bela Lugosi, Peter O’Toole and Donald Sutherland.
Adding to the canon is director Lasse Hallstrom, whose previous work draws on literary sources, ranging from Joanne Harris’s schmaltzy Chocolat to Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. At his best when focusing on characters, Hallstrom’s take on the Casanova legend is loosely based on his life, but makes no claim to be a biopic. This Casanova is, essentially, inspired by the legend rather than recounting it.
Against a backdrop of liberal Venice – surely any cinematographer’s dream – we are led through the canals and palazzi from the iconic Piazza San Marco to the world famous Carnevale, with its prerequisite masks and outlandish frocks. The city looks beautiful (no surprise), the costumes fabulous (how could they be otherwise), and of course the weather is always perfect.
Into this heady brew steps Casanova (Heath Ledger), assuming various identities along the way as he swindles, charms and plots in equal measure. We find him undergoing something of a transformation, from wicked philanderer to romantic lover, when he meets his match in Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller). She’s a lady with her own covert personality to match his, and dares refuse his advances. She’s a mean fencer too.
Ledger, recently down from Brokeback Mountain, and Miller make for handsome, watchable leads, but they’re not together on screen enough to convince as a couple in love. Even when they do share screen time, there’s little spark between them. Ledger was more convincing with Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. His deep voice helps give Casanova gravitas, but too often he seems less like an indomitable seducer and more like a lovestruck schoolboy.
The supporting cast are diverting. Jeremy Irons, breaking with a career of serious roles to flare his nostrils as Bishop Pucci, the Papal envoy seeking out heretics and charged with tightening Rome’s grip on the decadent city state, hams up his role well in an orange frightwig. He’s just the right side of terrifying. Oliver Platt, as Papprizzio the lard merchant, begins the film as a hated character and gradually wins us over. Also excellent is Omid Djalili who, as Casanova’s manservant Lupo, provides much needed charisma.
But Hallstrom’s interpretation of Casanova is strangely family orientated. More slapstick farce and forced comedy than adult titilation, this film is utterly devoid of anything erotic – considering the infamous character whose misdeeds the film is inspired by, it’s altogether odd. There are no sex scenes. We don’t witness why Casanova sent girls’ hearts aflutter, and the character is less convincing as a result.
The decision to play the film as a comedy, while understandable, also left less time for development of characters, motive and plot. While the story told is no less plausible than any of Casanova’s writing, this feels like a missed opportunity.