A handsome misfire of romanticized misfortune and decadence, war and idealism, tragedy and melodrama, "Head in the Clouds" aspires to be a sweetly risqué twist on the spirit of "Casablanca." But miscast leads and ersatz emotions leave the film's soundstagey period ambiance as its most comparable asset.

Underwhelming, accent-wavering Stuart Townsend ("Queen of the Damned") stars as Guy, an aspiring young writer and political idealist who comes under the spell of Gilda (Charlize Theron), a magnetically reckless woman who lives for the moment and for pleasure, believing she's doomed to die at 34 (as per an opening-scene palm reading). Passionate but uncommitted lovers at Cambridge in the early 1930s, they meet again in Paris just before the German occupation, where their disparate values in sex and life lead their renewed affair into tumultuous territory.

Townsend and Theron (a couple in real life) are wrong for their parts, both of which call for actors who can wear their intellects on their sleeves for confrontations that are at once lusty, emotionally raw and political in nature. More appropriately cast is Penelope Cruz as Mia, another of Gilda's lovers and a sexy Spanish dancer who became crippled, then turned to nursing in the hopes of returning to her country to serve in its republican revolution.

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