by Ed Symkus & r & & r & Casanova & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & eath Ledger is certainly having a good run, from curious accolades pouring in for his unrecognizable performance in Lords of Dogtown to the tortured mumbling that's earned all kinds of award nominations in Brokeback Mountain. And while he delivers a solid performance as the legendary Lothario, and titular character, in Casanova, it's the film itself -- the whole story and setting -- that's going to grab most of the attention.

Set in Venice in the mid-1700s (and entirely shot in that beautiful and timeless city), the dashing man-about-town is first seen literally dashing away, on the run from a group of Inquisitors after he's satisfied a convent-ful of nuns. There's no doubt, right from this introduction, which features a Keystone Kops-like chase across some rooftops, that the film is in full-tilt comic mode. It's a portrayal of Casanova as a rascal more than a serious lover, and it makes for an interesting character study.

To women whom he has his eyes on, Casanova will whisper, "Don't believe what they say; I don't conquer, I submit." To men, he will subtly brag, "All I do is worship beauty."

But it doesn't matter what he says. Although most denizens of Venice don't even know what he looks like, his reputation precedes him. There are outdoor plays and puppet shows about his exploits all over the city, and they are popular and randy.

But the slippery Casanova -- a man so cool, he's the only one in Venice wearing sunglasses -- is always on the run, always trying to hide his identity or trade it for someone else's. Things only get worse for him with the arrival of Bishop Pucci (Jeremy Irons in a great deep-voiced performance), who intends to rid the city of "heresy and criminal licentiousness" -- in other words, to catch and hang Casanova. He's simply having too much fun.

If a couple of storylines seem a little complicated -- different men love different women, and sometimes paths are crossed and more than one man is wooing the same woman -- don't worry; it all works out.

Happily, this remains an almost goofy comedy, with wonderful performances by Sienna Miller and Natalie Dormer as Francesca and Victoria, two of Casanova's love interests; the luminous Lena Olin as Francesca's mom; and Oliver Platt as the comically rotund Paprizzio (for whom there's much good-natured visual play and wordplay about his enormous bulk and appetite). The script's comic elements are less kind to authority figures, and the film takes great pleasure in making buffoons out of them.

The biggest surprise is that Casanova was filmed by Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, whose most recent films -- An Unfinished Life and The Shipping News -- have been dreary affairs. Casanova absolutely sparkles. Colorful, playful and funny, it's a real romp. (Rated R)

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