Lasse Hallström is a filmmaker who truly excels at making minor films, and it doesn't get any more minor than his latest, Casanova. Starring boy-of-the-moment Heath Ledger as the titular pre-modern lover, it's a high-gloss romantic farce with little going on underneath. Classic Hallsstrom? Sort of, but Casanova is surprisingly un-classy in spots, which is nice – for a movie of modest aims, it does an excellent job of weaving the grit of the rabble into its bland tapestry of prestige.

The film's relationship to the actual Giacomo Casanova is negligible at best (and here it's probably worth noting the Italian accents - or, that is, the fact that the mostly-British cast makes zero effort to affect them). Hallstrom paints 18th century Venice as something like Scorsese's 70s-era New York, but with the color and pacing of modern-day Miami Beach. Casanova and his man servant wile away their days on the streets, hopping from one mark to the next, perfunctorily executing scam after scam whilst giving off the constant appearance of leisurely preening. It's a bastardization enacted to lighten the subject's load: at 21, the real Casanova saved a wealthy man's life, thus earning himself a life-long benefactor; at 30, he'd be thrown in the roughest prison in Italy for allegedly practicing witchcraft, and would stay locked up for two years or more before making what history would record as an extraordinary escape. In the strapping young body of Heath Ledger, this Jack Cas would seem to be enjoying his halcyonic twenties. Hallstrom does, however, manage to find time to put his protagonist on trial for an exceptional number of crimes for a film that barely crosses the 100 minute mark, with most of the infractions apparently related to fornication and/or heresy. Also, at the film's climax, Casanova does make an escape that could be called extraordinary – although "absurd" and "tedious" might be adjectives of better fit.  

It's definitely not Shakespeare, but there is, at the very least, quite a bit of Shakespeare in Love to these procedings. The main improvement is that Lord Casanova – who in real life hopped professions as often as beds, and was said to be as virtuosic a lawyer as he was a poet and a spy – is here drawn as pretty and clever, but dead shallow, and certainly no intellectual match for proto-feminist Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), the grumpy secret philosopher with whom he very accidentally falls in love. Casanova, under orders to clean up his debaucherous act or leave Venice, is betrothed to the faux-angelic Victoria, a budding nymphomaniac who keeps trying to get Casanova alone for some pre-wedded bliss. Francesca's brother Bernardo is, meanwhile, gaga for Victoria, and Francesca herself is engaged, based on an arrangement made by her lonely, chubby-chasing mother (Lena Olin), to gluttonous lard scion Paprizzio (Oliver Platt, who turns a throwaway punchline about a "suitcase shaped like a salami" into a work of art). It's not hard to see how these convolutions will resolve themselves, but Hallstrom sufficiently manages to tangle his finely spun strands of story through enough absurd machinations to make futile any sort of predictability complaint.

The real question is: where did Heath Ledger come from? Or, where have I been? If all the attention is going to his work in Brokeback Mountain (lamentably, for it seems to be doing Jake Gyllenhaal's even better performance in that film a disservice), then let us not forget that his presence has infinitely improved two additional films this year: Casanova, and the still-pretty-abysmal Brothers Grimm. Here he shows an extraordinary physicality, made more remarkable for the fact that it's the polar opposite of the stuttering style of movement he employed as everyone's fave gay cowboy. One look at the way Casanova prances around a room, and there's little question as to how manages to melt virgin loins and conquer convents. Hell, there's one shot here of Ledger splayed out on a sofa that would make Bruce LaBruce blush.

The general subtext of Casanova is that most people generally enjoy having sex only slightly less than they enjoy lying about it. The real fun, it seems, is in the masquerade; it's also telling that actual pigs are used more than once as what I believe Maury Povich might refer to as "sexy decoys". As such, when the Pope sends a trusted advisor (played by Jeremy Irons in the most eggregiously flamboyant wig you'll see onscreen this year) to clean up the city, it doesn't ruin Casanova's fun, exactly; the presence of a puritan authority actually allows him to step up the intricacy of his game. Not that there's anything particularly dirty to be found here – it's R rating is, in fact, somewhat baffling. In fact, in most ways (and surely to the horror of Giacomo's biographers) Casanova feels incredibly family-friendly, considering that it ostensibly means to describe the erotic adventures of a famous rake. The worst that could be said for Casanova's morals is that the film's roundelay of couplings are somewhat flexible for a film that eventually holds true love and monogamy to the highest standard.

Because of the New York transit strike, I missed Disney's last press screening of the film, and ended up catching it as part of a Christmas Day-double feature alongside Adam Curtis' fearmongering BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares. Curtis' film is an uber-serious, three-hour indictment of Neoconservatism – and it has more in common with Casanova than you might think. Both films essentially run on the assumption that society doesn't want the powers that be to regulate their desires. That in itself is a statement that I'm not sure I entirely agree with; as I'll expound on more when I write about Curtis' film at length, I do think there's something appealing to many of us about putting our moral lives in someone else's hands. But I do find it interesting that Casanova, a film seemingly intended as a live-action cartoon, does at least as good a job as The Power of Nightmares of making what is essentially the same Libertarian argument.