Throughout the millennium now about to end, through wars, monarchy, evolving governments, and technology, one theme has remained constant -- the threat that unfettered female sexuality seems to represent to the established order of things. Marshall Herskovitz' DANGEROUS BEAUTY, a lush historical romantic candybar of a film set in the days when women wore corsets, men were chivalrous, and class was destiny, unfortunately was lost in the wake of another film in which women wore corsets, men were chivalrous and class was destiny. You know the one -- the one with the big ocean liner. Mere gondolas just could not compete.
Based on Margaret Rosenthal's biography of 16th century Venetian courtesan and poet Veronica Franco, DANGEROUS BEAUTY stars Catherine McCormack (who portrayed Mel Gibson's doomed wife in BRAVEHEART, scored by James Horner, thus beginning the inevitable game of Six Degrees of TITANIC). Veronica loves Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell), brother of her best friend Beatrice Venier (Moira Kelly), but due to her lack of a dowry is unsuitable as a wife for him. Scion of an important Venetian family, he must marry according to his station. Unable to "buy a good marriage", as her mother Paola (Jacqueline Bisset) so succinctly puts it, Veronica is tutored to become a courtesan -- with her own mother, formerly one of the best courtesans in Venice, as teacher. In one of those peculiar ironies for which Western civilization is famous, Venetian courtesans in the 16th century are the only women who are allowed a literary and cultural education. Indeed, men often rely on the counsel of their mistresses as much as on their own advisers. Small wonder, then, that good, upper-class girls are far more fascinated with the glamorous, self-assured courtesans than with the black-clad, decorous wives.
So Veronica is trained in the various arts of courtesanship, including navigating in the kind of platform shoes that would make a 1970's disco queen proud, playing the lute, looking smashing in gauzy nightgowns, gazing adoringly at buffoonish men, sensual consumption of various phallic vegetables (in scenes shamelessly lifted from the infamous eating scene in 1963's TOM JONES), and, well, various methods of stimulating the Real Deal, taught with a Real Model. An interesting side note to her training is that this film features a rare demonstration of early contraception in the form of a nasty-looking potion which Paola gives her daughter after the latter's "initiation" with the advisement that "it's more comfortable than a turtle shell."
Veronica then embarks on a flourishing career, on the way bedding on camera a variety of improbably hunky noblemen (and some less hunky ones off-camera, including a Servant of God) -- all except her beloved Marco Venier, whom she maddeningly keeps at arm's length.
Another man she keeps at arm's length is Marco's cousin Maffio (Oliver Platt), another courtier, with whom she jousts using words and ultimately swords. Maffio, responds to this courtesan's rebuff by enlisting with the Catholic Church's Inquisition, which in an undoubtedly intentional reference to the persecution of gays as the perpetrators of AIDS, persecutes the heretofore revered courtesans, blaming them for the bubonic plague, and ultimately trying Veronica as a witch.
The performances are wonderful, and combined with lush production values, save DANGEROUS BEAUTY from being just another bodice-ripper. Catherine McCormack, she of the incredibly perfect teeth, is breathtakingly beautiful as Veronica, with a wonderfully expressive face. In a world not already inhabited by Cate Blanchett, McCormack would be far more familiar to moviegoers. She has wonderful chemistry with Rufus Sewell as Marco, but although Sewell is handsome and sexy in a pop-eyed sort of way, Marco is so emasculated, first by his father and then by his wife, that his final courageous stand seems to come out of nowhere. Hollywood loves leading men with smoldering eyes, and while Sewell mostly avoids the cartoonish Valentinoisms of his countryman Joseph Fiennes, a scene in which Marco roughly throws Veronica on the bed before their first, inevitable encounter (must be that swordplay of hers that finally overcame him) is unintentionally funny.
The ubiquitous and hardworking Oliver Platt, who is rapidly becoming the American Robbie Coltrane, more than holds his own as a man seething with unfocused resentment. For those of us who remember Jacqueline Bisset as a young sex symbol, watching her portray an aging ex-courtesan is a painful reminder of the passage of time. However, she attacks the role of Paola with relish, especially the vegetable-eating training. Even Fred Ward, an actor I usually dislike intensely, is as warm as the red and gold robes he wears as Marco's uncle.
DANGEROUS BEAUTY is a film that careens between comedy, romance, and drama, with mixed success at all of them. It is certainly a beautiful film, with gorgeous people and equally spectacular costumes, mostly in warm tones, and beautiful Venetian scenery. Yet much of this film seems lifted almost verbatim from other movies, from TOM JONES to the 1996 Robin Wright vehicle MOLL FLANDERS, that its climactic courtroom scene falls flat. After all, we've seen these scenes many times before, even in similar costumes.
Yet despite its faults, DANGEROUS BEAUTY, with its true story roots, is an interesting companion piece to MOLL FLANDERS and Agnes Merlet's 1997 ARTEMISIA, in portraying the challenges that women in the young years of Western civilization faced who refused, whether due to circumstance of decision, to bend to society's restrictive rules for them.