- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

Jeremy Irons has an incriminating line upon making his second entrance in “Casanova,” a mock-biographical dud that contributes even more heavy facetiousness to the Christmas movie basket: “Perhaps I’ve arrived at a bad time.” The unintentionally witty aspect of the remark is that it’s always a bad time to be entering “Casanova.”

Set in Venice in 1753, the year before the authentic Casanova was obliged to flee his birthplace, this is not a stylishly tailored costume movie; it goes slack and stale with ill-contrived consistency while pretending to be an adornment to knowing and worldly romantic farce.

To clarify, Mr. Irons is not cast as the notorious amorist-memoirist Giacomo Casanova, who also qualified as an international man of mystery while crisscrossing Europe on missions of political intrigue and erotic adventure. Instead, director Lasse Hallstrom deploys Mr. Irons as his designated heavy, a stooge from the Vatican called Bishop Pucci who arrives in Venice determined to arrest and indict the youthful Casanova. That role is entrusted to Heath Ledger, who was having a pretty good year until this movie.

In “Casanova,” Mr. Ledger reverts to his problematic screen presence: large but impassive of face, mumbly of voice and deficient of both zest and relaxation. Because the hero is fondly envisioned as a smoothie, adept at charming women and deceiving adversaries, not to mention a dashing swordsman and compulsive risk-taker, the absence of a leading man who radiates vitality and confidence is a conspicuous shortcoming.

However, the more consequential shortcomings seem to derive from the screenplay and the general tone. The level of verbal snappiness may be measured by an early exchange between the hero and an informant, who opens with the line, “She has a secret lover.” Casanova asks, “Who?” The flunkyreplies, “I don’t know. It’s a secret.”

The high-minded heroine, Francesca, embodied with no discernible humor or pity by Sienna Miller, gets such numbing reflections as, “Love is not a thing of a night — or a fortnight” and, “Give me the man who can give himself to the one woman worthy of him.”

A stilted rather than enchanting vehicle, “Casanova” does get to use Venice and the carnival season as picturesque backdrops, and the superficial period trappings may entertain spectators who come for costumes, settings and wigs. It’s usually good for a laugh when actors step out with a hairpiece in this time frame. “Casanova” runs true to form in that regard.

Oliver Platt follows his hilarious turn in “The Ice Harvest” with a grotesque caricature of an obese suitor from Genoa named Pietro Papprizio, touted as a pork-fat mogul and weirdly matched with Lena Olin as Miss Miller’s lovelorn mother. Mr. Platt is the closest this “Casanova” gets to heavyweight slapstick, but his impersonation is far more stupefying than satisfying.

*1/2

TITLE: “Casanova”

RATING: R (Frequent prurient allusions in an 18th-century setting; intermittent mockery of the Roman Catholic Church of that period)

CREDITS: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, based on a story by Miss Simi and Michael Cristofer. Cinematography by Oliver Stapleton. Production design by David Gropman. Costume design by Jenny Beavan. Music by Alexandre Desplat.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

WEB SITE: www.casanova.movies.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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