In Lasse Hallström’s Casanova starring Heath Ledger — not to be confused with Fellini’s Casanova starring Donald Sutherland or Casanova’s Big Night starring Bob Hope — the character of the World’s Greatest Lover is adapted to suit the preferences of the World’s Greatest Purchasers of Self-Actualization Books. As Ledger plays the role (in wigs and cosmetics that would make Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis Del Mar retch), this legendary swordsman and scourge of the Inquisition loves the ladies but is never lewd. He seduces nuns and noblewomen with equal enthusiasm but is never cavalier about his conquests. He laughs at marriage but loves his mama, who abandoned him as a boy in Venice years ago for love, promising to return.
Urged by the sympathetic Doge of Venice to take a wife for the appearance of propriety — the Inquisition’s heinous guardians of piety loathe him and would like him hanged — this Giacomo Casanova goes through the motions of preparing for marriage to a pretty young thing. But the babe who really catches his eye is the one who disdains him and all his ilk: Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller) is a feminist who fences like a champ and writes her own self-actualization pamphlets (under a male pseudonym) for the 1753 equivalent of Ms. magazine readership. She’s also unwillingly engaged to be married, for the economic betterment of her family, to a rich fellow named Paprizzio (Oliver Platt), who proudly calls himself the lard king of Genoa and has the lard ass to show for it.
Mistaken identity, hidden identity, flaunted identity, faked love, true love, pratfalls involving a fat man in a gondola — the movie trucks in them all. And if real eroticism is missing — this is a Disney movie, with bosoms heaving more in a gentle parody of heaving than in full desire — the great discovery of this Casanova is Hallström’s recovered capacity for play. So neutered in his Hollywood pictures like The Shipping News and Chocolat, the Swedish director does his most freewheeling work since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
And he’s got some big assists. For one thing, the script and story, by a clutch of writers, includes an uncredited polish by Tom Stoppard, and it’s easy to imagine that some of the pic’s funniest (and most pointedly political) barbs bear the mark of Stoppard’s own sword. And for another, the supporting cast is a hoot. Ledger acquits himself dashingly (the one-two punch of Casanova and Brokeback Mountain proves he can play a man for all sexual seasons), and young Ms. Miller has a modern, smart-girl look about her; her Francesca is neither too tough to melt nor too glittering from the Emma Thompson school of smarties. But Platt, in full (prosthetic) girth, is a sight for Chocolat-weary eyes. Character actor Omid Djalili bites into every scene he’s in as Casanova’s servant. And as the fearsome Bishop Pucci, Jeremy Irons, in an orange wig from the mullet school of Inquisition hairdos, savages cant and hypocrisy with every faux pious word falling from his silver tongue. He’s the World’s Greatest Lizard.