Dangerous Beauty (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Dangerous Beauty is a lavish historical melodrama that has enough suds, sex, and flashes of flesh to appeal to soap opera-lovers and enough substance to attract those of a more intellectual bent. However, while the movie does more than pay lip service to themes of female empowerment and religious intolerance, the main focus is the kind of hopeless, star-crossed romance that gave Wings of the Dove flight. How do two young lovers, separated on their social terrain by a gulf of wealth and power, reconcile the hot reality of their passion with the cold truth that they can never marry?

Dangerous Beauty came into being using the title The Honest Courtesan (which is also the name of Margaret Rosenthal's "true story" novel, upon which the film is based). That appellation was dropped for fear that audiences wouldn't know what it meant. However, not only is The Honest Courtesan a more apt title, but it's a more provocative one. The words "dangerous beauty" mean very little, especially in connection with this film. In fact, a name like this sounds more apropos for a soft-core exploitation flick than a sumptuous tale of late-16th century Venice.

The time of Dangerous Beauty is the era in which Shakespeare lived and thrived, and the region of the world in which this story transpires was one of the Bard's favorite locales. As in many of Shakespeare's plays, the film makers have elected to have English-speaking actors play Italian characters. What's more, there are no silly accents. And, although the dialogue sounds more contemporary than archaic, the costumes, set design, and attitudes of the characters serve as powerful reminders that this is an historical tale.

In 1583 Venice, women were regarded as little more than possessions. Education and willfulness were negative traits, reserved only for those who plied their bodies for money. Marriage had nothing to do with love -- it was a contract made based exclusively on considerations of wealth and position. If a girl's family didn't have money, she had no hope of marrying an "important" man, no matter how deeply the two loved each other. In a situation like that, if she wanted him, her only hope was to become his mistress. And, if she was truly ambitious and skilled, she could become a courtesan, a mistress to dozens of men, all willing to pay for her services.

Such are the circumstances of Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack), who is desperately smitten with Marco Vernier (Rufus Sewell) -- and he with her. But the difference in their social position makes a legal relationship impossible. When Marco, not wanting to lead Veronica on, informs her of this harsh truth, she is devastated, and chooses to follow the advice of her mother (Jacqueline Bisset) and become a courtesan. Soon, with her rare mix of beauty, intelligence, and wit, she is the most prized prostitute in Venice, desired by everyone from the local bishop to the King of France. But, during the age of the Spanish Inquisition, power gained through "sinful" means can be a tenuous thing.

Against the backdrop of Veronica and Marco's tumultuous relationship, director Marshall Herskovitz explores the injustices visited upon women at a time when they were universally viewed as inferior to men. The obedient wives are presented as timid, uncertain creatures who dream of a better lot for their daughters while secretly envying Veronica's freedom. For her part, although Veronica uses every weapon at her disposal to hold her own in power struggles with men, she would give all that she has away for a life with Marco.

Catherine McCormack (who played Mel Gibson's lover in Braveheart) is perfectly cast as Veronica. The actress has a wonderfully expressive face and is capable of flowing effortlessly from an almost- comic portrayal to a more serious one. Added to that, she shows a flash of Errol Flynn. During the course of Dangerous Beauty, McCormack is given several opportunities to become involved in duels where the weapons vary from poetry to rapiers. Playing opposite her, Rufus Sewell (Cold Comfort Farm, Hamlet) displays both confidence and sensitivity, which makes him the ideal romantic lead. It doesn't hurt that he and McCormack ignite a few sparks when they're together.

One of Dangerous Beauty's subtle treasures is the top-notch supporting cast. Jacqueline Bisset is calm and tranquil as Veronica's mother, who was once a famous courtesan. Fred Ward shows real depth as Marco's uncle, who understands his nephew's longing for the seductive temptress. And Moira Kelly (as Marco's sister, Beatrice), despite being relegated to the background for most of the film, has one scene of startling, unbridled vehemence when she launches into a bitter diatribe about the fate of women in a world that treats them with so little value.

The actors, like the story, are helped immeasurably by the film's look. Visually, this is a gorgeous motion picture. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli's camera loves the streets and canals of Venice, making the city as much a character as any of the people. Filters only enhance the beauty. Using Bazelli's photography as a catalyst, Herskovitz creates the perfect tone -- one that is often serious, but occasionally playful, and where serenity can be suddenly interrupted by a burst of passion.

As is the case with too many melodramas designed to give the audience a triumphant rush, Dangerous Beauty goes over the top in its closing moments, offering speech-making and grandstanding that undercuts some of the film's drama. Still, it's hard to argue that, contrived as it may be, there's something satisfying about the way things wrap up. A "commercial" finale isn't the worst thing that could happen in a picture like this -- it may be emotionally manipulative, but, on a certain level, it works. Dangerous Beauty isn't great art, but it is good entertainment.

Dangerous Beauty (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 1998-02-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1