Monday, April 9, 2012

Movie – Dangerous Beauty (aka The Honest Courtesan aka A Destiny of Her Own (1998)

The movie Dangerous Beauty is based on the biography The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal.  It tells the life story of Veronica Franco, a woman who lived in Venice in the latter half of the 16th century.  Franco was a very accomplished woman, being a top courtesan, political player, renowned wit, great beauty, socially charitable person, favorite of many men including King Henry III of France, and author of two books of poetry around the time Shakespeare was first starting to put quill to parchment.  As you may expect, such a woman would also gather her share of enemies.  The movie is an effectively told tale about this woman and her life.

First things first – the movie has at least three titles.  It is known as Dangerous Beauty in the U.S., The Honest Courtesan in the U.K., and A Destiny of Her Own in Australia.  I don’t know why the studio changed the titles, especially since they were not translating it from another language.

Veronica is played by Catherine McCormack in the best performance of her career.  She had previously been in Braveheart as the woman William Wallace married in defiance of the English.  In Dangerous Beauty she gets to play the lead and show all the qualities that make her very believable as a woman that men would give anything to be with.

Veronica is friends with Beatrice (Moira Kelly – The Cutting Edge), who is from a richer family.  Beatrice’s brother Marco (Rufus Sewell – Dark City) falls in love with Veronica, and she with him.  To his credit, he is honest with her.  Her family is not rich enough to come up with a large enough dowry, plus his family is a powerful one and he is being groomed for the Senate.  He will end up having to marry for political connections, not for love.  Veronica is heartbroken. 

Veronica also sees Beatrice forced to marry for the same reason and it is a loveless marriage to a much older man.  It appears if Veronica does not want to share Beatrice’s fate she will have to enter a nunnery and face a hard life of deprivation.  Her mother Paola (Jacqueline Bisset) startles her with a third option: become a courtesan.  As if that was not shock enough, Paola reveals that in her day she was a courtesan herself.

Veronica is against this idea, but the other options are also very unpalatable to her.  Paola explains that being a courtesan is far more than just having sex.  She would be a cortigiana onesta – literally “honest courtesan”.  As one, she would be expected to be able to keep up with powerful men in all respects, including knowledge, politics, warfare, and the arts.  Paola takes her daughter to the massive Venice library.  Women are not allowed in, unless they are courtesans.  In addition, courtesans are the only women allowed to own their own property and to go out in public unaccompanied by a man.  Wives are not educated; their only job is to produce children for their husbands.

Veronica, having a very bright mind, realizes that she needs to get over her initial aversion and embrace this profession because it will give her the freedom to do all the things she has always wished she could do.  Paola gives her a crash course in etiquette, comportment, dress, makeup, literature, art, politics, and yes, how to pleasure a man physically.  Veronica quickly becomes a favorite of the rich and powerful men in Venice.

One man who is not pleased is Marco, who could not marry her without defying his family.  Another is Marco’s cousin (Oliver Platt – West Wing) whose poetry is now judged inferior to Veronica’s.  Needless to say, none of the wives of the powerful men have anything good to say about her either (some because of jealousy for their husbands and some because of envy for Veronica’s freedoms).  Among the wives is an early appearance by Naomi Watts (21 Grams).  Also in the cast are Fred Ward (Tremors), Jeroen Krabbe (The Fugitive), and Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner).

Marco and Veronica reconcile and she stops being with other men.  Unfortunately, war breaks out.  In order to secure a much needed alliance with France, Veronica sleeps with King Henry III.  This once again causes Marco to become estranged from her.  She points out to him that he has still been sleeping with his wife all along, while she only slept with the king once.  In addition, she points out that he was willing to set aside their love for the good of just his family, while she did it for the good of the entire city.  Logic doesn’t have much chance against raw emotion and Marco goes off to war.

While the war is still going on the only women who are kept informed on current events are the courtesans.  This places the wives in the very awkward position of having to ask favors of the very women they hate/envy in order to find out news about their husbands.  Veronica tells them everything she has heard, but it doesn’t make the wives feel any more charitable towards her.  As if war isn’t enough, suddenly a plague also hits the city.

The Catholic Church convinces the citizens that the war and plague are signs from God that the wickedness in the city must be purged.  The cause of this wickedness is, of course, the powerful and accomplished women.  Veronica is declared a witch by the church and put on trial.  If she is found guilty, she will be put to death.

The movie in general, and the trial in particular, take the opportunity to raise many moral questions.  Which is actually the worse existence for a woman at that time – courtesan or wife?  Is having sex with many men too high a price to pay for the freedoms it brings?  Is giving up all education or ability to own property too high a price to pay for the security of becoming a wife?  Is a brilliant woman that big a danger to the Church and the political hierarchy, especially when she has shown she can navigate it to the benefit of the city?  Is a marriage of political convenience just another form of prostitution, albeit a socially acceptable one?

As I said at the top, this is based on the life of a real woman.  The movie is relatively accurate, from what I can tell.  Some of the less believable aspects (i.e. the King of France) actually happened.  For the most part, the events in Veronica’s life are real.  It is the love story with Marco that is invented to better illustrate the choices some women were forced to make.  Knowing this was based on the truth (Veronica really was put on trial), it meant that I was actually in suspense about what would happen to her.  With a regular movie of this type you know you can pretty much count on a happy ending, but with a movie showing actually historical events anything can happen.

The film obviously has some things to say about how women were treated at the time.  Whether these scenes are informative or overbearing depends on your attitudes toward the subject.  I certainly wasn’t bothered by them.  If this story sounds interesting, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Great review! I think I read about this movie once why I was researching McCormack's films, I couldn't believe how much she changed between Braveheart and Spy Game. I do not however like Sewell, I haven't seen a guy give a decent performance once.

  2. @Sati. - Thanks. I can't think of a particularly great performance by Sewell, but I also can't think of any where I've felt he has stunk, either. To me he's just one of those guys that seems to show up in a lot of movies. Dark City is probably his best movie, to me.

    I can't tell you that watching him in Dangerous Beauty would change your opinion of him, but if everything else about the movie sounds interesting then give it a try. If Sewell is too much for you then you can turn it off. McCormack is the real star of the movie; Sewell is one of the supporting characters.

  3. I am so happy you wrote about this movie, it's one of my favorites- McCormack has just a captivating presence to her and she is very beautiful. Rufus Sewell is one of my favorite British actors, and in my case, I thought he delivered here, as well, I like him! Great review!

  4. @Diana - Thanks! I also felt McCormack had a real presence in this film. It was very believable to me that she could captivate all those men.