Placing “Casanova” on a double feature with “Brokeback Mountain” would offer an intriguing contrast — or at least provide fodder for some film student’s grad-school paper.
The former features Heath Ledger as the most notoriously fervent heterosexual male in history. In the latter, Ledger stars as a stoic cowboy who’s conflicted about his romantic longings for another man.
Together they confirm something that’s become increasingly evident as Ledger’s career progresses: This is an actor of seemingly immeasurable range and versatility. (Also this year, he had a flashy supporting role as a volatile surf shop owner in “Lords of Dogtown,” and he co-starred with Matt Damon in the fanciful if wildly uneven fairy tale “The Brothers Grimm.”)
But the movie “Casanova” most calls to mind in Ledger’s filmography is “A Knight’s Tale,” the one that helped make the Australian actor a star in the first place. Both allow him to showcase his sly comic timing; both reveal a real charisma beneath the pretty-boy good looks.
Director Lasse Hallstrom is trying too hard to evoke the complex hilarity of a Shakespearean comedy with this story set in 1753 Venice; even before the mistaken identities, miscommunications and gender-bending escapades pile up, you expect that the characters could bust out in iambic pentameter at any moment.
“Casanova” is fun, though. Based on a script by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, it’s a giddy romp more along the lines of Hallstrom’s “Chocolat” than his self-serious films like “The Shipping News.” (And, this being awards season and all, you’d swear that this lushly photographed period piece had similarly come from the Miramax year-end vault.)
Amid the golden light and grandiose architecture along the Venetian canals, Giacomo Casanova is a legend. Virgins tremble at the very sight of him; nuns are prepared to suffer eternal damnation for one night in his arms.
Naturally, the woman he really wants is the one who won’t have him because she’s too smart to fall for his tricks and thinks too much of herself to become just another one of his conquests. Sienna Miller plays the part of the feisty, feminist writer Francesca Bruni with surprising weight — the blond style icon is unrecognizable under reddish hair and full frocks, especially following British sex-kitten roles in “Alfie” and “Layer Cake.”
She and Ledger enjoy a great banter with each other, even though neither of their characters knows exactly who they’re bantering with. Francesca is engaged to marry the portly Paprizzio, “the pork fat mogul from Genoa,” whom she’s never met. Oliver Platt is a good sport in the role, which requires him to dress in garish clothes, parade around pompously and undergo a makeover involving head-to-toe green goo.
Casanova is engaged to the supposedly innocent Victoria (Natalie Dormer) in hopes of avoiding being exiled by the hypocritical bishop (Jeremy Irons) for his wicked deeds, but he pretends to be Paprizzio to woo Francesca. Meanwhile, Francesca’s brother has secretly loved Victoria from afar, and Francesca’s mother (Lena Olin, Hallstrom’s wife) finds herself smitten by ... well, you get the picture. It’s complicated.
Hallstrom goes overboard with the whimsy as he builds toward the film’s climax, a legal showdown in which a woman pretends to be a man to argue her point, like something out of “The Merchant of Venice.” A masquerade ball, fireworks, a nighttime hot-air balloon ride — name it, he’s probably thrown it in there.
Let’s just say this won’t be the movie that earns Ledger an Academy Award nomination.