Depicting a period honestly, but still making it accessible, is a challenge all historical dramas face. Often the period ends up no more than a thin, improbable backdrop to provide a flavor more than a truth (even when the movie is great, as in Shakespeare in Love which came out the same year as this film). But sometimes, as with Dangerous Beauty, the liberties manage to bring out believable and unexpected moments along with some fun entertainment, because the logic of the time is so foreign and yet disturbingly recognizable.
The distance and changes from historical accuracy are necessary because understanding the strength of a class of people within their own period and framework is often impossible. And, in this particular case, celebrating strong women in a society that values them only as chattel, and not violating the rules of that society, is even harder.
McCormack (Shadow of the Vampire) creates a free-spirited woman who recognizes her world and works within its limitations without losing herself. It is an empowering and sad reality that she balances with craft and some great dialogue. Bisset (Dancing on the Edge) as her mother, Watts (St. Vincent) as her rival, and Kelly (One Tree Hill) as her odd admirer create a trio of women who provide the full scope of the upper crust of Venetian society and the characters within it who struggle with all the same challenges, but each responding to it differently.
On the male side of the balance, Sewell (Hercules) plays McCormack’s foil; a man both in and out of his time, and fighting to balance both impulses. Platt (Chef) and Weber (Medium) provide additional tensions and opportunities for both Sewell and McCormack as well as windows into the core truths of the times and, more generally, people. There are a host of other great, smaller roles as well.
Herskovitz, much better known for his writing (Love & Other Drugs, Thirtysomething) and producing than his directing, orchestrates a sumptuous feast for eye and mind. He is unafraid of his subject or its requirements, but never loses the implications of his character’s choices. Admittedly, the character direction isn’t quite perfect, there are scenes with confused and imprecise moments, and perhaps a forced choice or two, but the overall effect is jarring in the best of ways. Even Fenton’s award winning works both with and against the action, making you both appreciate the moments as well as recognize their strange reality.
Historical aspects and truths aside, as this is based on a real woman and period of time, the film is also just a wonderfully entertaining romance, with enough comedy and struggle thrown in to make it interesting. It is also fairly unpredictable to the very end, thanks in part to direction and, in part, to keeping it close enough to the times to make any outcome possible and still satisfying. The movie would also make a great double-feature with Gigi, which takes on some of the same issues in much more recent history, if you’re looking for a companion piece.