Don’t let the lighthearted Venetian bedroom-balcony-to-gondola chase scene at the beginning fool you. Russell T. Davies’s two-part, three-hour British television film “Casanova,” which begins on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” on Sunday night, is not a rollicking series of casual sexual encounters and farcical bedroom-window escapes. But it does have a lively pace, a warm spirit, a contagious sense of fun, some very pretty 18th-century European settings and Peter O’Toole as the title character in his later years. Eventually it even becomes poignant.
This Giacomo Casanova (the somewhat scrawny David Tennant), the son of an actress with minimal maternal instinct, is a young man looking for true love. He falls for a gorgeous young castrato who, he is convinced, is really a woman posing as a man. (The James Garner character in the film “Victor/Victoria” would have sympathized.) After an attack of homosexual panic, Casanova proceeds with the seduction, at which time both he and viewers may wonder if he is about to have a “Crying Game” moment.
The woman Casanova cannot forget and apparently cannot have is Henriette (Laura Fraser), a beauty of humble origins who loves him in return but refuses him because he is penniless. She feels compelled to marry a nobleman, Count Grimani (Rupert Penry-Jones), for security.
When Casanova, who has so far posed as a doctor, a lawyer and an astrologer, finally comes into some real money, Henriette accepts his proposal. But Grimani is powerful enough to put a stop to that. The next big dramatic scene is Casanova’s almost miraculous escape from a prison cell at the top of the Doge’s palace.
Casanova’s sexual prowess and prolifigacy are referred to but rarely shown. There is a nice moment of slapstick when a priest, hearing Casanova’s confession, keels over in shock. And in one of those rare scenes, the secret of Casanova’s success with women is revealed. While relaxing in the postcoital bed with two sisters, the elder one teaches him the seductive magic of showing real interest in a woman, right down to her hopes and dreams.
This “Casanova” has a decidedly contemporary tone and is not particularly big on realism. There is a highly unlikely heart-to-heart chat between Casanova and Grimani just before their duel and a colorful party scene in which Casanova and his fiancée (Nina Sosanya) appear to invent both punk fashion and the waltz. Contemporary music finds its way into the story too.
In many flashback films, the storytelling section — in which the lead character in the “present” (in this case, 1798) shares his story with an eager listener — is just a tired bookend device. But here those segments take on real drama of their own as a young maid (Rose Byrne, who is excellent) shares a crucial piece of information with Casanova, who is elderly and living alone, working as a castle librarian in what is now the Czech Republic.
At the very end, the film turns into a shameless tear-jerker, but because of the marvelous Mr. O’Toole it’s a luscious one.