Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
March 1, 1998
Like its subject, the 16th century Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack), Dangerous Beauty is gorgeous and captivating.
As portrayed in the film, Venice was a wealthy, decadent metropolis. While the city was a center of commerce and culture, it doesn't offer much for women.
For Veronica, this world is especially oppressive. She comes from a poor, disreputable family and is madly in love with the young noble Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell from Cold Comfort Farm). She has no dowry to attract a decent suitor, and she's ill-suited to be a nun or a maid.
Veronica reluctantly decides to follow her mother's footsteps and become a courtesan. In her environment, this is a smart move. Courtesans are not mere streetwalkers; they are educated, sophisticated and command high fees. In her new life, Veronica elicits respect and makes Marco more jealous and eventually more loving. The job does have its drawbacks. The Church (except for a bishop who's a regular client) doesn't approve, and the possesive clients can bring a courtesan's career to a brief, violent end.
Veronica's story may be real, but director Marshall Herskovitz's approach is as fanciful as a Disney cartoon. Every centimeter of Venice in Dangerous Beauty is well lit, and the streets and canals are free from dirt or litter.
The opulently romanticized production design isn't the only thing worth watching here. McCormack, who's probably best known for playing Mel Gibson's ill-fated wife in Braveheart, plays Veronica with considerable charm and force. Veronica may sleep with Venice's city fathers, but she doesn't let them or anyone else dominate her. While McCormack is formidable, Sewell holds his own. The two read off each other like books and keep things entertaining even when the storyline begins to resemble a silly bodice ripper. They also get terrific support from Oliver Platt (A Time to Kill) as Marco's cynical cousin, and Jacqueline Bisset, who's delightfully stern as Veronica's mother and mentor in the trade.
Freshman screenwriter Jeannine Dominy (working from the biography, The Honest Courtesan, by Margaret Rosenthal) dishes out some lively banter, but her dialogue is a strange mix of quasi-Elizabethan wordplay and contemporary profanity. Some of her parallels with 20th Century culture are forced. The ending speech McCormack delivers is particularly anachronistic, and it's as much a sermon as anything the Inquisitioners utter.
Authenticity and credibility have been sacrificed, but there's a giddy mischievousness to Dangerous Beauty that keeps it afloat. It's worth catching simply because it captures the joy of being bad (R). Rating: 7.
Read an interesting article about the realVeronica Franco and her times.
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