Oddly enough, there were two versions of Casanova brought to the screen in 2005. The better-known of the two is the lavish movie starring Heath Ledger – I have seen this film, a couple of years ago now, but remember finding it a bit disappointing as a drama, although Ledger was great and I enjoyed the Venetian settings, costumes etc. I should really give it a second try. Anyway, I’ve just belatedly watched all of the three-part BBC mini-series made the same year, starring David Tennant, Peter O’Toole and Rose Byrne - I’d only seen bits and pieces up to now – and just wanted to write a short posting to say I loved this irreverent version of the story. It isn’t exactly what I’d usually think of as a costume drama, since the characters are very much modern people in 18th-century dress, and the language is very 21st-century too, full of contemporary slang and teasing references to the present day. But I found it seductively enjoyable - and, perhaps surprisingly given the subject matter, I felt it was ultimately about romance rather than sex.
The writer, Russell T Davies, also created the revived version of Doctor Who which starred David Tennant – so it’s not surprising that there is a strong flavour of the hit sci-fi series about this production, with the same fast-moving blend of mischievous humour, quirkiness, adventure and, at times, underlying melancholy. Tennant’s portrayal of Giacomo Casanova also looks forward to his version of the Doctor, as he plays a flamboyant outsider living on his wits and constantly putting on an act, or a series of acts, but with a vulnerability underneath. Of course, the big difference between the two dramas is that Casanova is definitely for adults only, with some outrageous sex scenes along the way, even though most of these are short and played mainly for laughs, and it is suggested that a lot of it may be lies.
The central story follows Casanova from his lonely boyhood as the son of a poor actress to his successes and failures in the courts of Italy, France and England. He always ends up on the run again when he loses a gamble on love or money - accompanied by his valet, Rocco (Shaun Parkes), who is really his friend rather than his servant. There are plenty of women glimpsed along the way, and a passionate fling with a singer who may or may not be a castrato – Bellino (Nina Sosanya). But Casanova’s true love, Henriette (Laura Fraser), is always eluding his grasp. She’s another pretender in society, who tells him she is his female counterpart – and, to complicate things further, she is engaged to his enemy, Grimani, played by top period drama actor Rupert Penry-Jones.
This modern version of Casanova is a man who likes women as people rather than just seeing them as conquests, though there is still a long string of seductions, and, late in the story, this lifestyle has its tragic consequences when he sees that his son, Jack, has grown up as a caricature of himself – and really is a heartless, immoral pleasure-seeker, with no secret soft centre.
The main story is set within a framing narrative, with Peter O’Toole playing the elderly Casanova, who is eking out a lonely existence as a librarian for a nobleman. All the people he knew in his heyday are dead, and he is scribbling down his memoirs in secret – until a new servant girl at the castle, Edith (Rose Byrne), the daughter of a wealthy family fallen on hard times, recognises his name from her father’s stories. She starts to ask him about his past, and the legend unfolds in flashback.
The story often cuts between the older and younger Casanova, with some shots moving from Tennant’s face to O’Toole’s – Tennant filmed this with blue contact lenses so that their eyes look the same. By the last episode, there is as much interest in the older Casanova as in the younger, and O’Toole has some powerful scenes. His role is much more than just a narrator. This flashback construction gives a poignancy to the story, since we already know how it will end – and also casts a teasing doubt on some of the more outrageous episodes (many of which are apparently in the real Casanova’s memoirs!), since it could always be the older Casanova exaggerating to impress Edith, and posterity. All in all, I enjoyed this a lot more than I’d expected to – I rented the DVD but will now be buying it to watch again in the future.