Ah, the classic tale of the bad boy and the women who love him. I've never understood why women in these stories always fall in love with this type of guy, fully knowing that he'll break up with them. And so I fully expected to hate this movie because I anticipated some kind of irritating Don Juan soft-core fantasy featuring a smug lothario in bad frilly shirts seducing gullible women, prompting the men in the audience to hoot admiringly at his prowess, while their dates swoon.
But instead, Lasse Hallstrom's take on the legendary lover Casanova is actually a refreshing satire -- one that has as much fun deconstructing the Casanova myth with a postmodern wink as it does reveling in the festivities of unrestrained machismo.
Heath Ledger (quite a few miles away from 'Brokeback Mountain') stars as Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), the real-life adventurer, soldier, spy, diplomat, writer, philosopher and romancer. 'Casanova' discards almost all of the former to focus on a fictionalized interpretation of the latter. The story is told in flashback, as the aging Casanova reflects on his life and past loves, which play out like an 18th century soap opera.
As our story begins, Casanova is engaged to the virgin Victoria (Natalie Dormer), who is also the object of the affections of Giovanni (Charlie Cox). Enter the fiery, rebellious Francesca (played by a saucy Sienna Miller). A feminist before there was such a word, Francesca bucks authority at every turn and wants nothing to do with an immature scoundrel like Casanova. Which, of course, prompts Casanova to fall for her. Unfortunately for Casanova, not only is Francesca the sister of Giovanni, but she's betrothed to the uptight, gluttonous Paprizzio (Oliver Platt) who thinks that -- stay with me here -- Casanova is the feminist writer Guardi, Francesca's nomme de plume. Amidst all these secret identities, forbidden affairs and unrequited longings, the Catholic Church gets wind of Casanova and Guardi's decadent activities, and sends the sinister Pucci (Jeremy Irons) to bring them to trial for heresy.
As it plot suggests, 'Casanova' is a lot of fun. What I enjoyed most about the film is its playful spirit for randy adventure -- Hallstrom uncharacteristically employs a light touch, accenting the inherent humor in stuffy manners being upstaged by juvenile hijinks. Ledger continues to prove his versatility as an actor, bringing a vigor and excitement to what has essentially become a caricature. Sienna Miller surprises, too -- her name may be better known from the tabloids these days, but in this role she brings a warmth and spirit to a girl who may be too modern for her times, but is certainly more accessible to modern audiences as a result. Hallstrom also wisely doesn't overplay the Catholic Church subplot, mining it more for comedy than any high-minded moralizing.
'Casanova' is far from a great film, however. It is obviously a pastry puff of a movie for Hallstrom, who usually tackles more serious themes, ranging from abortion ('The Cider House Rules') to small-town suffocation ('What's Eating Gilbert Grape'). It also has nothing really new to say about its subject matter, refashioning the familiar Casanova tale as an equally familiar wish-fulfillment romantic fantasy where the eternal bachelor is finally tamed by the strong-willed woman he loves. But while 'Casanova' doesn't reinvent the wheel, there are certainly worse cinematic sins to commit than simply being entertaining. "So many windows and so little time," Casanova says at one point to a female admirer who whispers in his ear that her window (and a quick getaway) is always be open to him. It is in asides like this that 'Casanova' finds the perfect balance of charm, romance and modern wit. Perhaps the film could have used a bit more sparkle, but it's still a charming enough farce to tickle the funny bone -- and maybe a few other nether regions.
Not only has Buena Vista granted 'Casanova' a luxurious BD-50 dual-layer disc, but as we originally reported back in December, the studio has opted to use the VC-1 compression codec for this release, marking only the second time (following 'Flightplan') that the studio has diverged from its exclusive support of MPEG-2 and AVC MPEG-4 on its Blu-ray releases.
'Casanova' is a very pretty, often sumptuous film -- director of photography Oliver Stapleton bathes the film in rich oranges, with flashes of corn yellow, deep crimson and clear blue skies. Hues are suitably gorgeous, with a vivid but generally natural look, and fleshtones are absolutely superb. The source is also pristine, with even dark scenes flush with detail and depth. There are more than a few moments here that deliver the kind of excellent high-def promised in all those "Beyond High Definition" ads. And thankfully, contrast hasn't been blown out to high heaven, giving the film pop without the hardness that often mars highly-processed transfers.
My only complaint is that the mid-range flattens out a bit, giving the initial impression that the image is a tad soft; it's actually quite sharp, but the dip in contrast combined with a bit of color filtering casts a slight pall over the proceedings.
As for VC-1, I noticed no compression artifacts, noise or edginess. So Disney's second experiment with the codec is a success. Is it superior to MPEG? Impossible to tell from just these two titles, but 'Casanova' won't make me retire my copy of 'Pearl Harbor' just yet.
Disney provides 'Casanova' with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track encoded at 48 kHz/16-bit, and it really surprised me. I didn't expect great sonic delights from a romantic comedy, but the film's finely-tuned sound design really blossoms in high resolution.
The soundtrack's best attribute is its use of classical music appropriate to the period, including Vivaldi, Handel and Corelli. The score has a very lush, swelling urgency to it, which often fills up the full 360-degree soundfield quite nicely. There is little in the way of aggressive discrete effects, but the occasional outdoor or lively crowd scene boasts a decent enough amount of rear activity. Dynamic range is impressive -- though the film is largely dialogue-driven, low bass is actually quite strong when it needs to be, and mid-range is much warmer and robust than I anticipated. Given the nature of the material, this is a terrific presentation.
'Casanova' is a bit of an odd release to get the BD-50 treatment. Since the 111-minute feature is encoded in the more space-friendly VC-1, it's not quite clear where (if anywhere) those extra 25 gigs are being used, especially considering the disc's slim selection of supplements.
In any case, the highlight here is the audio commentary with director Lasse Hallstrom. Don't get me wrong, I like Hallstrom -- he is always fun and lighthearted on his tracks -- but a solo track for nearly two hours is a tough slog. It can get dry, and the many stories about the challenges of shooting a period piece in modern Venice grow a bit old. Likely only the most devoted 'Casanova' and Hallstrom fans will get all the way through this one.
There are also two making-of featurettes, but they are fluffy and relatively devoid of nutrients. "Creating the Adventure" (12 minutes) is your usual promo affair, featuring on-set interviews with all the principals, including Hallstrom, Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller. Aside from some discussion about the challenges of shooting a feature film in Venice, there is little info here beyond plot recap. The other vignette is "Dressing in Style" (5 minutes), which is a visit with costume designer Jenny Beavan, whose 18th Century designs are indeed lovely. A nice plus here is that all of video material is presented in full 1080p/i video.
Alas, there is no theatrical trailer included for 'Casanova.'
'Casanova' is an entertaining and sometimes sexy farce, and an interesting departure for director Lasse Hallstrom, who usually tackles more meaty material. This is a very good-looking Blu-ray presentation, and the soundtrack is quite lush, too. A few more extras would have bumped the overall rating of this one up a notch. As is, it makes a good Saturday date night rental, or a fine purchase for fans of the film.