on October 23, 2006
At one point in the BBC production of Casanova, the Italian ladies' man jokes with his latest paramour that his surname translates as "lucky b*stard." The real-life Giacomo Casanova claimed to have slept with 122 women and four men. Such a colorful life has sparked any number of dramatizations, including this three-part miniseries from the BBC (shown in the US courtesy of Masterpiece Theater).
The series opens with the elderly Casanova (Peter O'Toole), now librarian to a nobleman, writing his memoirs. An inquisitive serving girl, Edith (Rose Byrne) takes an interest in the old man, and he begins telling her about his adventures. The narrative shifts back and forth between the present and the past; in brief vignettes, viewers see young Giacomo's childhood and adolescence, his education and sexual awakening. Finally, "Jack" reaches young adulthood; David Tennant takes over the lead, and the fun really begins.
The story is pretty much a dramatic fabrication, although some details are accurate (e.g., Casanova's daring prison escape), and much of it comes off like an eighteenth century "Catch Me if You Can." Casanova has no money or position or status, so he gets by with a combination of intelligence, wit, trickery, and of course, sex appeal. Before long, he's hobnobbing with the Venetian upper-crust and later traversing half of Europe, bedding one woman after another. But the real love of his life is a spirited young beauty named Henriettte, who naturally is engaged to Casanova's arch-rival, Grimani. Much of Casanova's schemes and exploits over the course of the film revolve around him trying to muster the resources to win Henriette away from his enemy.
The series is, for the most part, exceedingly well-done. Its cornerstone is a tight, focused script (by Russell T Davies), crackling with witty dialogue. The story spools out at a good pace, and most of the characters are reasonably well-developed. As one might expect, there's a lot of bawdy sexual humor, but none of it is overdone. Casanova's love for Henriette gives the story a solid dramatic anchor and lends sympathy to a character who otherwise would seem like a shallow womanizer. The older Casanova's narration provides both framework and perspective, and in a nice touch, his story is still unfolding in the present even as he recounts his past. The direction (by Sheree Folkson) is generally crisp and effective, though there are some distracting gimmicky effects, making good use of visuals and character reactions.
The tone really helps to sell this production--it's lighthearted, romantic, dramatic, and poignant in exactly the right spots, taking itself seriously enough without taking itself too seriously. It also helps that the characters all feel very rooted in the culture and values of their times, and the script doesn't shy away from brutal realities, including untimely death, barbaric executions, the rigid social structures imposed by money and status, and the limited options available to women.
Visually, Casanova is a sumptuous treat, with enough location work to keep it from feeling set-bound. The interiors are gorgeous, and the costumes are fairly eye-popping, with nice shifts in color schemes as the narrative switches from one location to the next. Despite the quality and the lavish attention to detail, however, the production still looks cheap by American standards--colorful and over-the-top, but fake. Oddly, this amateur-theatrical quality is part of the series' charm, and it even provides some self-deprecating humor (e.g., an animated galleon bobbing across an old-fashioned map indicates a sea voyage). The score is spotty: good in some places, wincingly synth-pop in others.
The production's other great strength is the performances of the cast. O'Toole hits all the right notes as the older Casanova, looking back on his life with a mixture of nostalgia, pride, pain, and regret. Remarkably, the seventy-something actor conveys a real sense of sex appeal, and his chemistry with the much younger Byrne is excellent. But the film belongs to Tennant, who gets the bigger chunk of screen time and brings exactly the right combination of cheeky confidence and lovelorn vulnerability to the younger Jack. The character's over-the-top behavior would be obnoxious in lesser hands, but Tennant's nicely controlled performance keeps the viewers' sympathy with Casanova at all times. Tennant also does excellent work "aging" the character over the course of twenty years, as time, exhaustion, and disappointment all take their toll. His comic timing is wonderful--a couple of scenes are screamingly funny (Casanova goes to confession, literally giving the priest a coronary), and Tennant's delivery of lines like, "I'm the Italian with the wh*re!" are spot-on perfect.
O'Toole and Tennant are supported by a large and mostly able extended cast. Particularly impressive is Shaun Parkes as Casanova's sidekick/ manservant Rocco: the two share some hilarious banter and have great chemistry together. Also strong is Nina Sosanya as Casanova's second major love interest, a singer named Bellino: she's a real presence, despite relatively limited screen time. Byrne does excellent work as the curious and compassionate Edith. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Rupert Penry-Jones as Casanova's rival Grimani: the character starts off as a pompous, rich boor, but layers are revealed as the story unfolds, building up to an emotionally powerful scene that Penry-Jones plays to aching perfection. Probably the weakest link in the cast is Laura Fraser as Henriette--she doesn't impart much depth to the love of Casanova's life, making it hard to swallow that he'd go to such lengths for her. Given the scores of women literally throwing themselves at him, Henriette really needed to be a compelling presence, and she's not all that different from his other paramours. It doesn't help that Fraser's repertoire consists of a single facial expression, which starts off charming but starts to grate very quickly. She's not terrible--she has a wonderfully funny scene where Henriette and Jack communicate by sign language across a crowded ballroom--but in such an outstanding cast, she gets lost.
Overall, Casanova is a fun, colorful romp, with much to recommend it. It's to the series' credit that the nearly three-hour running time goes by very quickly. I strongly recommend the DVD release over the edited version PBS is showing. Yes, the sex is fairly raunchy and leaves little to the imagination, but it also provides much of the story's humor, and one crucial exchange between Grimani and Casanova feels, well, neutered with so many dirty words cut out. The production has its campy moments, and some may find it too over-the-top, but underneath the trappings is a fairly classic love story with a lot of heart.