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Dangerous Beauty

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Dangerous Beauty

Starring: Catherine McCormack, Rufus Sewell
Director: Marshall Herskovitz
Rated: R
RunTime: 111 Minutes
Release Date: February 1998
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Oliver Platt, Moira Kelly, Fred Ward, Naomi Watts, Jeroen Krabbe, Joanna Cassidy

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

A movie, play or novel that takes place in the distant past gains resonance when we in the present can see its universal truths. Thus the conflict between Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" becomes the rivalry between the Latinos and mostly Polish Americans in Arthur Laurents' "West Side Story" and Julius Caesar turns into Mussolini in contemporary versions of that slice of political theater. As you watch "Dangerous Beauty," which is set in the Venice of the late 16th century, your mind may well wander to today's news-monopolizing headlines about the Monica Lewinsky affair, which has taken the shape of a story about a young woman who has allegedly used her feminine wiles in part to get herself employment in the glamour field of women's cosmetics. There are differences, as expected, since in Jeannine Dominy's screenplay, based on a bio by another woman, Margaret Rosenthal, the principal character-- who insists on a life of independence from the constrictions of society--has little choice. But similarities abound, in no small part because in both the Lewinsky situation and that of the person of Veronica Franco four centuries earlier, the mothers are mentoring their daughters in their chosen, ill-reputed avocations.

"Dangerous Beauty" is the story of the lovely Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack), seemingly in her early twenties, who is madly in love with the curly-haired Marco Vernier (Rufus Sewell). Marco has tasted the pleasures of quite a number of the Venice aristocracy and loves Veronica in return, but is culturally constricted. Because of his high position in the Venetian nobility, he is constrained by his father (Jerome Krabbe) to marry someone of equal stature. Though Veronica's family has had a coat of arms for the past seven hundred years, she has no dowry. She is neither here nor there. Too blue-blooded to consider wedlock with someone in the more proletarian orders and not sufficiently wellborn to mate up with Marco, she is directed by her mother Paola (Jacqueline Bisset) to become a courtesan, i.e. a high- class prostitute, revealing that both Paola and Paola mother were courtesans in their own youth.

Now, a courtesan in the Venice of the time is no streetwalker but is, rather, quite the opposite. She is a woman sought out by the betters of the city-state because she is intelligent, has an education far surpassing that of the typical noble lady, and is as well-versed in protocol as the graduate of any top American finishing school today. She is sought after for her cerebral charms as much as for her carnal bent, principally by high-born fellows bored with their vapid wives and bimbo girl friends. The picture, directed with only a portion of tongue in cheek by Marshall Herskovitz, is at once a romance, an education in European politics, a feminist tract, and an outright hoot. The scene which best exemplifies these missions is one in which Veronica is playing host to the king of France, a man whose influence is badly needed by Venice's ruler, since he has the power to lend the Italian city- state the ships it needs to fight the invading Turks. A night with Veronica pursuing activities so strenuous that the king can barely sit on the royal cushion in the morning leads to the king's granting this favor to the doge. Veronica becomes, then, the face that launched a hundred ships.

Perhaps no picture has done more to elevate the hooker's status in the world than "Dangerous Beauty," formerly "The Honest Courtesan," a title that was scrapped allegedly because the producers feared that the public would think it was a movie about cortisone. Veronica is transformed by her mother from a lovesick virgin to a courtly companion almost overnight, acquiring an instant education at about the time she learns to walk on shoes that could keep podiatrists in business for several lifetimes. She charms the nobility during the day by matching her skill at inventing verse with Maffio (Oliver Platt), a courtier and poet who grows to hate his rival because he cannot afford a night in her boudoir.

Of the performers, only Mr. Platt is miscast. His ideal role would have been that of a fool, a Sancho Panza to a story's Quixote as in the forthcoming movie, "Bulworth." The bulgy- eyed Rufus Sewell, quickly becoming a hot property with a role in the critically acclaimed "Dark City" which was released at about the time of this film, is sexy enough. But in shaping his character, we wonder whether scripter Dominy is indulging a male fantasy, that of a man who is eagerly sought in marriage because of his repetitive conquests of other women rather than in spite of this trait. Jacqueline Bisset is the woman most pleasant to look at, a mother more alluring than Catherine McCormack, and in fact the whole picture is a pretty spectacle filmed by Bojan Bazelli with post-card splendor. If producers Herskovitz, Ed Zwick, Arnon Mitchan and Sarah Caplan were willing to write off some of their audience by taking the story more seriously, the English language would have to be scrapped in favor of Italian with subtitles. In any event, the story is involving throughout and effectively carries the message that a smart woman will do what she has to do to make it in a society which is still run by men.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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