Rufus Sewell has appeared in many period dramas -- A Knight's Tale (2001), The Illusionist (2006),Helen of Troy (2003), etc. -- as he looks splendid & heroic rather than like the usual sissy actor in ruffles & tights.
His intense if slightly spooky eyes, & still with the flush of youth about him, he's the perfect romantic leading man for Dangerous Beauty; aka, The Honest Courtesan; or, A Destiny of Her Own (1998), chronicling the heroic humiliation of Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack).
Although founded upon an historical poet & odelisque of 16th Century Venice, this fictionalized account is much more a conventional bodice-ripper than a docudrama.
Veronica has fallen in love with a man well above her station. When the reality sinks in that a peasant girl, no matter her beauty or how much in love, can never be allowed to wed nobleman, she rejects the convent & sets out on a career of courtesan.
She is following in the footsteps of her mother Paola Franco (Jaqueline Bisset turning in a fabulous performance training her own blood to be the highest of high class harlot). Here again the film fudges history. Veronica's mother Paola Franco raised her girl for just this purpose, & no choice in the matter. The fictionalized version makes it a personal choice as a means of retaining at least a courtesan's access to her beloved.
Veronica becomes one of the most famous exemplars of her art in Venice, & even gets to do a bit of swashbuckling if only in passing. She loves many men, chiefly men of great power, & they after their sundry methods love her.
It's a fantastic masturbation fantasy for girls & housewives, but it's as good as such fantasies of aesthetic prostitution ever get. And the fact that the primary love of Veronica's life continues to adore her just builds on the fantasy, absurdly but well.
When she entertains the King Henry III of France, his delight in her changes the course of the city's history. Despite the sheer hutzpa of the imaginative plot, it's not entirely impossible, as courtesans with access to royal courts did indeed occasionally have small inputs into matters of state.
History's Veronica Franco was a cortigiana onesta or "intellectual prostitute" of Renaissance Venice, a figure of court roughly equivalent to the heterai of ancient Athens.
In rough outline many of the events of the film, including her appearance before the Inquisition, are factual, though the treatment is as romantic fiction.
The viewer is bound to like the fictional version of Veronica sufficiently to just want to go along with the fantasy of the Heroic Whore Of Profound Beauty Saving The Nation.
Such fiction so much more fun than a story of the fates of the greater majority of courtesans, doomed to die young with festering soars rotting off their noses. (Even history's Veronica Franco died neglected & largely forgotten in her forties, which fact the bodice ripper treatment of her biography musts evade.)
So too to see her beloved Marco Venier in swashbuckling circumstances equally upraises him in the fantasy of being worthy of a super-harlot's love.
It wouldn't be a proper bodice-ripper without villains & danger, so the Holy Inquisition descends upon the city. Veronica's powerful patrons fear the Church & abandon her in an hour of need, when she is charged not with prostitution, a venial sin that would not have involved the Inquisition, but with witchcraft, making painful execution the intended outcome.
The details of the trial are strictly imaginary, though it is known at least that Franco was brought before the Inquisition & charges dismissed. Here it is staged in a jural manner that never seemed likely, the film's final act is essentially a courtroom drama.
When Marco Venier stands in the court to change the course of the case, it's the perfect hero-to-the-rescue situation. His overwrought speech to the "holy" judges & to the cowed noblemen of the city who nearly let her burn is hokum of the highest order, but Rufus is damned sexy pulling it off.
Lush photography & costumes, delightfully pictorial throughout, Dangerous Beauty is very winning junk food. For viewers not usually into a trashy historical romances, this one will probably provide inroads as to why so many women love the hell out of such literature. It's got beauty & conviction that completely trumps the fact that it has only slightly greater historicity than the average Harlequin Romance.
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