3½ stars (out of four)
In "Casanova," director Lasse Hallstrom turns his genial eye on one of history's most famous seducers, Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, the legendary woman-chasing diplomat, soldier, spy and author whose very name has become synonymous with seduction. Not surprisingly, Hallstrom gives us a genial interpretation and a supremely good-humored film.
It's not a very true one, of course; few historical films are. But Hallstrom's movie is the kind of funny, knowing sexual-historical memoir you'd expect from the director of such warmhearted movies as "My Life as a Dog" and "The Cider House Rules." It's a visually sumptuous romantic comedy that turns Casanova's life into elegant, high-spirited farce while transforming the Chevalier de Seingalt himself (played with easy virility by Australia's Heath Ledger) into a guy who just needs the love of a good woman to straighten him out.
That's our modern interpretation, of course. These days, in high-end movies and books, a rogue and sexual adventurer like Casanova must somehow face feminism -- and Hallstrom's Casanova pays for his sins by falling in love not with the ripe, virginal dolly Victoria (Natalie Dormer) panting for him, but with the proud feminist author and social reformer Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), who bests the men around her in almost everything, including swordplay.
Daughter of the worldly and wise Andrea (played by Hallstrom's wife, Swedish actress Lena Olin), sister of the repressed, lovestruck Giovanni (Charlie Cox), Francesca is, we learn almost immediately, Casanova's lifelong secret love, the woman he remembers best while writing his memoirs as an elderly court librarian.
So Casanova, pursued by the relentless inquisitor Bishop Pucci (played with humorously and deadly sarcasm by Jeremy Irons), is forced by the harried Doge (Tim McInnerny), the local nobleman, to spruce up his image by taking Victoria as his wife -- only to lose his heart to fierier Francesca, the one woman seemingly immune to his wiles.
There's another major scene-stealer here: Oliver Platt as the rotund rich buffoon and "lard king" Paprizzio, who arrives in Venice as Francesca's arranged fiance and whom devious Casanova takes under his wing as a "Hitch"-like makeover expert, dispensing ridiculous false advice to his fat and fatuous rival. Soon Casanova has disguised himself as Paprizzio, and a tricky series of masked games unspools, all enacted with commedia dell'arte style against the glittering backdrop of 1700s Venice, at its most bejeweled and carnivalesque.
I defy anyone with a taste for this kind of thing not to enjoy "Casanova." Probably Hallstrom's most entertaining film since "My Life as a Dog," it often seems to be a snazzy comic opera libretto begging for a Mozart. But it does get the next-best thing: a wonderful, lilting score derived from baroque classics by Vivaldi, Albinoni, Corelli and the like.
Ledger, an Australian hunk, seems to have a chance here to corner both the heterosexual and homosexual movie lead markets in a single season. But attractive as he is, he's not as good in "Casanova" as he is in "Brokeback Mountain," maybe because the role is more dependent on the high style and droll spin of an Irons or Platt.
Hallstrom, an excellent moviemaker, shouldn't get penalized (as he sometimes is) for his recent specialization in literary films such as "The Cider House Rules," "Chocolat" and "The Shipping News." Why knock literary quality? "Casanova," by contrast, is a film that feels like a novel adaptation, though it comes from an original script by Kimberly Simi and Jeffrey Hatcher, whose "Stage Beauty" was one of the wittiest of recent period scripts, and who gives this film urbanity and sparkle too.
In the end, Hallstrom's film "Casanova" beguiles us because it's a cute, beautiful lie, whereas the real Casanova's redemption came from his late-life candor and literary achievement. Perhaps we'll see that Casanova some day on film; Hallstrom's movie gives the rogue the happy ending he never had and probably didn't deserve. But if you're in the mood for baroque pleasures and the sort of romantic comedy that turns the whole world into a Venetian fireworks display, "Casanova" will tease and please you for the night.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; written by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, from a story by Simi, Michael Christofer; photographed by Oliver Stapleton; edited by Andrew Mondshein; production designed by David Gropman; original music by Alexandre Desplat; produced by Mark Gordon, Betsy Beers and Leslie Holleran. A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation; opens Sunday, Dec. 25. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: R (some sexual content).
Casanova -- Heath Ledger
Francesca -- Sienna Miller
Bishop Pucci -- Jeremy Irons
Paprizzio -- Oliver Platt
Andrea -- Lena Olin
Lupo -- Omid Djalili
The Doge -- Tim McInnerny
Guardi -- Phil Davis
Victoria -- Natalie DormerCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times