Imagine a modern romantic comedy movie transplanted to 18th Century Venice, add a bit of swashbuckling, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Casanova. Lasse Hallström's fleet-footed romp is impossible to take seriously, but that's largely the point. Fresh from his affectingly dour turn in Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger plays the infamous bounder and self-described philosopher Casanova.
Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi's screenplay immediately establishes the upside and downside to being Casanova, the womanizer who is a legend in his own time (The Shadow Box author Michael Cristofer gets co-story credit). There's no time for subtlety: Casanova's romp through a bustling nunnery is interrupted by officers of the Inquisition. After a narrow escape from hanging, Casanova is given an ultimatum by the sympathetic Doge (Tim McInnerney of Blackadder): settle down with one woman or suffer the consequences.
The child of actors, Casanova harbors abandonment issues regarding his mother: despite increasing complications, he won't leave Venice until her promised return. Instead, with the help of trusty buddy-manservant Lupo (Omid Djalili), Casanova selects a virgin bride (Natalie Dormer). Unfortunately, Ms. Right turns out to be another woman: a feminist fantasy named Francesca Bruni (embodied nicely by Sienna Miller). Naturally, she presents an irresistable challenge to the man she calls "the libertine who devotes his life to seducing women."
Against the odds, Bruni is a well-educated and fearless woman, author of the pamphlet "The Hopes of Women in the World of Men" and a swordfighter of the first order (disguised as a man, the petite Bruni improbably hefts a sword against Casanova). But realism is about as much of a concern here as history—both are irrelevant. (For a more scrupulous and skeptical view of Casanova, see Fellini's 1976 take.)
Casanova thieves the identity of clueless lard merchant Paprizzio to insinuate himself with Francesca and dodge the newly arrived Bishop Pucci, "the Pope's most feared Inquisitor." Jeremy Irons delivers a positively priceless turn as the Bishop, whose velvety menace ("Heresy is whatever I say it is") is ripe for embarrassment at the hands of the disguised Casanova. As the cruelly mistreated Paprizzio, an especially ruddy and rotund Oliver Platt also contentedly mugs it up (and makes googly eyes at Lena Olin).
Though partly symbolic in its iterations on masks and stalking, Casanova focuses on determinedly silly fun, dressed up by gorgeous Italian locations and period costumes by Jenny Beavan. Casanova's humble ambition of style over substance represents a good move for Hallström, who has specialized of late in self-important, middle-classy mulch (An Unfinished Life, The Shipping News, Chocolat).
The dialogue has a contempo snap (perhaps I dreamed it, but I'm pretty sure Olin says, "This is the last time I'm travelling coach"), and in an appropriate move for a film about a seductor, Hallström stages a symbolic double-climax. In the first, the film wafts away on a balloon of hot air; in the second, Casanova cheats death beside his lover.