I’ll give Casanova credit for at least doing something different with the tired period piece. I mean, it’s not a good something, but at least it’s a slight attempt at originality which, in a genre like this one, is always a pleasure. This is a bright, mostly cheery picture and it’s not about upper-class socialites having one problem and one problem only in their lives. It’s refreshing, and if it did things well, it would be the example to hold up and to strive for.
The main character is Giancomo Casanova (Heath Ledger), who was a real person. His life wasn’t exactly like it’s presented in the film, but then, whose is? He’s shown here as the most carefree soul, addicted to having sex with as many woman as he can con into bed. Considering this is the 1700s, and many of his targets were church women, he’s ordered to either marry really soon, or he will be kicked out of the city. The Church had previously shown leniency toward him, but circumstances dictate that this can no longer happen.
As a result, Casanova sets his sights onto a cross-dressing woman’s rights activist named Francesca (Sienna Miller). That romance plays out for the rest of the film, all leading to a climax that’s a bit too easy, but, then, maybe it really happened that way. I don’t really care one way or another. It’s a shame that the film is too boring to be worthwhile, as this basic idea is both funny and interesting enough to be worth pursuing. Actually, if the film was about Francesca and not Casanova, I think we might have had a better picture.
See, in those times, women weren’t allowed many basic rights. Seeing one woman take a stand, dressing as a man and writing under a pen name — that has the potential to be exciting. It would have been more of an inspirational story, too, and she’s a character who is a lot easier to care about than Casanova. She’s at least attempting something with her life. His is already a legend — we see puppet shows performed about his “activities” — and yet he does nothing that’s particularly interesting or engaging.
The director is Lasse Hallström, better known for darker (and better) works like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. This film is much different in tone, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing on its own — a director needs to stretch, after all, just like an actor — this lighthearted approach did nothing but take away any danger that the characters have. You don’t expect anyone to come out of this film with scars because of how joyous and happy everyone is. They can’t be harmed because the film won’t allow it.
This is despite an undeserved R rating from the MPAA, which makes you wonder if they saw the same film that was released. There is no violence, profanity or nudity in the film, and the only substance consumed is alcohol. Sure, Casanova’s reputation is someone who sleeps around, but surely you can’t be given that sort of rating based on a reputation, especially if the most you get to see is a 10-second clip that would be tolerable in a PG-13 action film.
It’s almost a given that a costume drama makes you feel like you’re back in time, likely in another part of the world. Our film this time around takes place in the mid 18th century, in Italy. The costumes are flashy, the sets are detailed, and it all looks very authentic. Should you expect otherwise? No. Fans of the genre will note that only notable (terrible) exceptions don’t at least look good. That’s one of the appeals. You want to see famous people talk oddly and dress old-fashioned. Whatever plot and purpose is almost secondary. I guess that’s why I’m not a big fan of these types of films.
There’s just no depth to this film, which is even more disappointing when you realize that Casanova was a real person and that there are texts filled with things that could have been incorporated into the film. Instead, we just get a boring story with surface-level characters and absolutely nothing beyond pretty visuals to hold our attention. Is that enough? For some, I suspect it might be. Spending two hours in 1750’s Italy might just be compelling enough.
It also has good acting, although because the characters these actors are playing are so shallow, it’s mostly just a waste of good talent. Heath Ledger gets very little to do in the lead role, while Sienna Miller has a more meaty role, but it ultimately doesn’t matter because the film isn’t about her. Jeremy Irons and Lena Olin also have significant roles, and both have the potential to steal scenes, if their past work is anything by which to judge them. They’re also solid, but in more supporting roles, meaning they have even less importance and significance.
Casanova is a good looking, very happy movie about a man who can’t keep it in his pants pursuing a woman who actually has ambitions in life. It should have been about her. Either way, neither of the two leads have any depth or reason to care about them, and because of the light tone, it’s impossible to think any harm will befall them. It’s well-acted and it looks very impressive, but it’s all for naught because there isn’t a story worth telling or a point worth raising contained in these frames.