Gaudy and giddy, this Casanova is full of energy but also strangely limp. Here the legendary lothario is caught up in a swirl of Venetian activities, from pig wrangling and dueling to hot air ballooning and (comedic Inquisition-style) torturing, but he’s actually quite the nice fellow, only gadding about until he meets the right woman, that is, an 18th-century feminist who will set him straight, as it were, regarding the desires of “women.”
That’s not to say this wealthy and titled Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (Heath Ledger) doesn’t remain a great lover, at least as he tells it. During the first moments of Lasse Hallström’s film, Casanova boasts of his many lovers, the charm with which he seduces all, and his efforts to keep track of them in the “pages of my life.” “Oh god, I’m tired,” he sighs, and already, you know what he means. It’s not that his work is hard, exactly (“I don’t conquer, they submit,” he says), but he has been at it for most of his young life, and, well, the other men are jealous and occasionally ride him out of town, after which he’s told he must be contrite, which he just can’t manage. If only all those women weren’t so demanding, then maybe he’d have a chance to keep a few promises or catch up on some sleep or who knows, written a few more books.
The one “story” in his life pages that Casanova means to tell here has to do with Francesca (working-at-spunky but ultimately bland Sienna Miller). Casanova first spots this beauty when he’s escaping from some of the many men in Vienna who despise him (or his reputation, anyway). He’s galloping through an academy where she’s lecturing to a male audience. She’s disguised as a man, of course, for women cannot attend school, let alone lecture, as they only distract men from their by-definition serious business.
Her topic: the state of heterosexual relations in the modern world, that is, the 18th century. Or something like that. She quotes an expert on women’s rights (a famous author who is, come to find out, actually her writing an alias), and predictably incites her listeners’ ire. They start yammering on about the importance of keeping women at the hearths where they belong, asserting that they will never stand for a woman among their illustrious number. Just then, she whips off her disguise with the clever rejoinder: “Too late, gentlemen!” Ah, heresy. Casanova happens by at this moment and quite appreciates her feisty performance, and surmises that, while he won’t conquer her, she will be unable to resist him.
Sadly, at this moment Casanova doesn’t have time to chat, only ogle, for he is, after all, trying to elude the clutches of the Inquisition, here embodied by the paler than death Pucci (Jeremy Irons). Though Casanova can’t understand the man’s apparent personal dislike for him (“All I do is worship beauty,” He protests), he must stay a step ahead at all times, which leads to hijinks of the most tedious sort, including mistaken identities and marriage plots.
These last have to do with deals cut by parents in pursuit of titles and riches. To evade arrest, Casanova (under his other, titled name) has an agreement with Donato (Stephen Greif) to marry his virginal daughter Victoria (Natalie Dormer), while Francesca is promised to the pork lard baron Papprizzio (Oliver Platt, horribly abused as the butt of a series of fat-boy jokes) by her impoverished mother Andrea Bruni (the fantastic Lena Olin). Though Francesca despises everything she knows about Casanova, she is quite taken by him when he pretends to be Papprizzio. As he endeavors to keep her separate from the real Papprizzio, Casanova is also trying to keep himself out of sight from Pucci, while charming both Victoria and Andrea in order to give himself enough room to seduce Francesca. It’s a juggling act and then some, but for all the flouncing and running about, it’s very slow going.
The multiple climaxes occur at one of those everyone’s-invited masked balls (big surprise), for which Casanova comes equipped with a mask on a stick that features both black and white faces. The simplicity of this device suggests a kind of elegance quite missing from Casanova generally. It’s cluttered with overstated characters and clichéd plots and obvious deceptions to be figured out.
All the falling into place is even more disheartening than the sprawl of spasticity preceding. When Francesca learns of Casanova’s true identity, she’s suitably furious (“You stand for everything I write against,” she fumes, though I don’t think she quite stamps her pretty foot), though her mother is not so upset when she learn that the man for whom she has fallen, the lard baron who’s supposed to be marrying her daughter. Enough.