Rated R - Running time: 1:51 - Released 2/27/98

I like period movies, and I like this one better than any I've seen lately. The richness of Dangerous Beauty is evident from the first few moments; the settings and costumes of 16th century Venice burst on the eye with the honey-toned warmth of a beautiful sunset. And this film's performances match its technical achievements across the board, rendering a well-balanced, textured, and at times humorous romantic drama.

The story is about a young woman, Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack), who is in love with a wealthy senator, Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell). Though Marco loves Veronica, he cannot marry below his class. When he admits this to her, she is so hurt that she decides to follow her mother's (Jacqueline Bisset) advice and become a courtesan, as mother had once been.

At first this is meant simply to make Marco jealous, but Veronica soon finds that being a courtesan is not all that bad: in exchange for their virginity and their honor, these women basically run the town. Unlike the proper ladies, who were not expected to do anything but make babies and do needlework, Venetian courtesans in 1583 were the wealthiest, best-educated, best-dressed, and most desired women around. They were trained in poetry and the classical arts so that they could entertain the menfolk outside the bedroom as well as in. Unlike today's prostitutes who simply exchange sex for money, they were more like professional lovers.

Marco does become jealous, of course, and though he is married to a very honorable woman with whom he cannot begin to relate, he continues to pursue Veronica, singing to her balcony even as she is entertaining another. Nowadays, we would call this "stalking." But she eats it right up. All the flirtatious fun comes to an abrupt end, however, when Venice goes to war with Turkey. Marco must join the battle, and while he is gone the plague breaks out back home. Seeing the population dwindling, a group of religious zealots accuse the courtesans of drawing God's wrath. As Marco returns from the war, he finds half his city dead, and the other half pointing fingers at his beloved Veronica and her colleagues.

This film, a true story based on the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal (adapted for the screen by Jeannine Dominy), is a noteworthy achievement by director Marshall Herskovitz. Exquisitely bringing to life the lovers' relationship, he uses the cinematography by Bojan Bazelli to great effect, complemented by George Fenton's beautiful music. It's clear Herskovitz took the film's title seriously, emphasizing the beauty of the settings and costumes, contrasted by the danger of living in such a time.

Superb supporting performances are rendered by Oliver Platt as Marco's friend and poet, whose unanswered lust manifests itself as a deadly vendetta; and former courtesan Bissett, whose motherly advice encompasses subjects at which most parents would blush. One memorable scene has her educating Veronica on the finer points of sex — with the help of a naked, virile young Venetian man serving as "guinea pig." It's a tough job...

This film deals frankly with adult subject matter, but the story is not cheapened by the strong sexuality portrayed. It is a complement to all the other elements: the emotion of the love story, the drama of the climactic tribunal, and the overall richness of the production itself. Dangerous Beauty is enjoyable for all, but probably best for consenting adults. ****½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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