The message of "Dangerous Beauty" seems to be that in 16th Century Venice the most liberated, fulfilling life for an enchanting young girl was the life of a hooker.
Of course, the movie uses the much more attractive term "courtesan," which was also the film's original title until market research revealed that 90 percent of Americans don't know what the word means.
The new, far tackier title is more appropriate it turns out, since "Dangerous Beauty," while strongly acted and beautifully photographed, is really nothing more than a Danielle Steele story masquerading as Shakespeare.
A highly romanticized historical biography, the film stars the lovely Catherine McCormack (Mel Gibson's doomed wife in "Braveheart") as Veronica Franco, the real-life courtesan and poetess who 400 years ago clandestinely influenced Venetian politics and stood up to the Inquisition.
McCormack's sprightly, post-feminist performance helps "Beauty" skirt the unpleasantries of the sex trade and focus on what it bills as the pluses of a courtesan lifestyle -- the freedom to be educated and opinionated in a time when women were largely regulated to silent servitude.
The story begins with a pre-prostitution romance between middle-class Veronica and a wealthy, handsome aristocrat named Marco Venier (Rufus Sewell, "Cold Comfort Farm"). They are in love -- as demonstrated by a montage sequence of giddy, soft-focus gondola rides and picnics -- but Marco's marriage has been arranged to a girl more "of his station."
Disenchanted with the whole idea of matrimony, having been being jilted and after seeing her best friend dutifully married off to an homely old man, Veronica is proposed a solution by her mother (Jacqueline Bisset) under which she can retain her freedom, be allowed to pursue poetry and education, and still have Marco when she wants him -- become a courtesan.
Veronica fails to see the appeal at first, but once mom proudly confesses her past as a lady of the night, another montage follows -- this time a light-hearted training sequence involving fillatio instructions, a briefing on male reasoning and attempted lyrical dialogue, e.g. "A courtesan is a force of nature in a civilized cloak."
Before long Veronica becomes a behind-the-scenes player in the Venetian ruling class. Charming, gorgeous and intelligent, she influences the men she sleeps with, lives a glamorous life, and enjoys duels of wit with gentlemen at parties.
She also continues her relationship with Marco, whose wife is an obedient dullard who lacks Veronica's appealing sass.
Directed by Marshall Herskovitz (producer of "Legends of the Fall" and TV's "My So-Called Life"), "Dangerous Beauty" has a tantalizing atmosphere, aided by magnificent sets and costumes.
The men retain their masculinity, even in those silly accordion collars, and I'd had never know the Venice canals were a sound stage had I not read it in the press kit.
McCormack and Sewell, both rising stars to keep an eye on, lend a certain believability to their dime novel characters.
But the melodramatic, soft-focus candy coating shellacked over this true story, while probably necessary to sell the picture, at the same time makes large parts of it laughable.
We're asked to believe that after sleeping the majority of the Venetian elite, Veronica has qualms about flopping on her back for the king of France, even when doing so would mean gaining his alliance in an important war.
When the Black Plague hits the city and religious zealots turn the sex trade sour, Veronica faces the Inquisition and refuses to repent. This really did happen, but for dramatic effect Herskovitz tosses in a little "I am Spartacus"-style relish that sends the movie's credibility toe-up.
In making a movie of Veronica Franco's life, creative license was inevitable. I mean, who would want to see how old, fat and ugly most of her johns really were? But "Dangerous Beauty" is imprudently sincere in it's exaggeration.
While its theme of female empowerment through sexuality rings true enough, the story as seen through Herskovitz's rose-colored camera lens is a bit too idealized for earnest consumption.