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Clever but flawed 'Casanova' will woo some viewers

CasanovaStarring: Peter O’Toole, David Tennant, Rose Byrne, Laura Fraser
On: PBS, Channel 2
Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10:30

There's a scene in ``Casanova," the new ``Masterpiece Theatre" two-parter, that qualifies as truly sweet. Across a crowded ballroom, world-class lover Casanova has a private hand-gesture conversation with the lovely Henriette. Their movements and eye contact say much more than words; it's a complete communication, despite the distance and the noise.

The movie, which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2, offers us a sweet surprise by giving us the world-famous 18th-century slut as a man in love with the unattainable Henriette (Laura Fraser). This time around, the young Casanova (David Tennant) would gladly give up his sexual high jinks to marry this elegant woman, who wears red while the other court ladies dress in pale tones. But, having come from nothing herself, Henriette won't throw in her lot with a penniless drifter whose fortunes change like the weather. Casanova must brood.

This is a counter intuitive approach to the story of hedonism and frolic that has been told so many times on screen, and writer Russell T. Davies deserves credit for his reinvention. Davies, who also wrote the British version of ``Queer as Folk," maintains the farcical tone that you'd expect from any ``Casanova." He and director Sheree Folkson energize Casanova's heyday with a cleverly self-conscious style that mixes contemporary dance, modern language, and camera trickery with glorious 18th-century visuals. But then the filmmakers play down what we already know about Casanova's love-making prowess, in order to accommodate nice touches of bittersweet romantic melodrama.

Alas, like so many lives on film, ``Casanova" is mostly a flashback, framed by the story of the older hero looking back . Played by Peter O'Toole, the latter-day Casanova has aged into a librarian in a musty castle , and he has no joy except to write down his early adventures. When an adoring maid (Rose Byrne) asks him about his past, he is all too glad to revisit it -- while putting the moves on her .

The problem is, O'Toole's Casanova seems completely disconnected from Tennant's Casanova. As the movie hops back and forth between the two actors, continuity feels strained. O'Toole portrays a lugubrious egomaniac, without the charms of a man who knew how to listen to women and make them feel loved. But Tennant plays a cheeky and slightly geeky dude who doesn't let his ego get in the way of his conquests. Unloved by his mother as a child, he finds something deep in the arms of women. O'Toole's Casanova seems cowardly and vain; Tennant's Casanova is lovable and, at certain moments, noble.

And O'Toole gives an inflated performance that works hard to be great, and not necessarily good. With his hammy expressiveness, he's straining to be larger than life, and more tragic than the movie merits. To me, his acting seemed indulgent, particularly in the second half of the movie (next Sunday) . ``Casanova" is a giddily unconventional tale of an adventurous youth, but then it's also a stock and inflated portrait of old age. It's only half good.

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