So how does a hot young heterosexual actor follow up an über convincing performance as a tormented gay cowboy? By playing the world’s greatest (straight) lover, of course. Happily, Heath Ledger’s latest move isn’t just career-smart but a whole lotta fun for the audience, too. He tops a glorious year stuffed with intriguing performances as wildly diverse characters — see also: his revolutionary surfer dude and lord of Dogtown, and his Grimm participant in a Terry Gilliam phantasmagoria — in a frantic farce that shows off his comic charms to glorious effect. Ledger’s been around for a goodly while now, but it feels like he really arrived in 2005 as a force to be reckoned with, and that feels spontaneous and unplanned and wonderfully surprising, not like it was the secret plan for world domination cooked up by a team of managers and agents and publicists but like the hard-earned payoff of a true artist who took chances instead of taking an easy route.
Maybe Ledger surprised himself, too, cuz there’s a lot of that same feeling in his legendary Lothario here, who gets felled by the one thing he never saw coming: Wuv. Twue wuv. Um, I mean, “true love,” but damn if this Casanova doesn’t remind me just a bit of The Princess Bride. Fleet and frisky in a way that director Lasse Halström (An Unfinished Life, The Shipping News) hasn’t achieved before, this is one of the most charming movies of the year, all storybook romantic and sexy and a veritable orgy of swordfighting and swashbuckling, jests and japes, and mistaken identities both accidental and by design.
Venice in the 18th century is, scrumptiously, “a cesspit of heresy and fornication,” say the inquisitors from the Vatican come to put their sanctimonious collective foot down. But then, the Churchmen are all buffoons here — such as the Pope’s spiritual hitman and Casanova’s nemesis, Bishop Pucci, played by the wickedly witty Jeremy Irons (Kingdom of Heaven, Being Julia) — and the puritanism of the Church is played up as hilariously absurd. But the pointed jabs in the droll script — by Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty), Kimberly Simi, and Michael Cristofer — don’t just poke at easy targets like the Catholic Church but also, refreshingly, slyly take on Hollywood ideals of attractiveness to embrace a generous recognition that sexual appeal is very much in the eye of the beholder and not something that can be dictated or subverted. Oliver Platt (The Ice Harvest, Kinsey), in a delicious and unexpectedly poignant performance, is Paprizzio, a wealthy merchant whose “empire of pork” gives him what he believes is the wherewithal to woo the lovely Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller: Alfie). Even in Paprizzio’s unflattering fat suit and absurd wardrobe, however — and contending with Paprizzio’s perhaps inflated sense of himself — Platt exudes a cuddly vulnerability… one that allows the realignment of his affections, when dignity and reality demand it, to maintain a sweet tenderness — Paprizzio is never the clown he could have been.
The movie is all Ledger’s, but only just: Platt and Irons and Lena Olin (Hollywood Homicide, Queen of the Damned) as Francesca’s mother are excellent foils and complements for Ledger’s energetic, playful sexiness and shrewd cunning. The one weak spot — though only by comparison to such a distinguished crowd — is Miller’s Francesca, who inspires this astonishing new emotion of love in Casanova. A spitfire feminist-before-her-time, she’s as adventurous and daring in her own way as Casanova is in his… but Miller doesn’t have quite the necessary magnetism to make us believe she could be the one extraordinary woman to ensnare Casanova’s heart. Miller’s performance is fine, but she just isn’t robust enough to genuinely contend with Ledger’s screen charisma — you can’t help but wish that Ledger had met his match here as Casanova does.
Still, only the gorgeous Venice locations can really hope to compete with Ledger. He’s got the cinematic equivalent of Casanova’s gift of seduction, no question.