dir: Laurence Dunmore
[img_assist|nid=960|title=Even syphillitic he's still eminently shaggable|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
Talking directly to the camera, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, tells us that we will not like him. We won’t like him because he is a thoroughly naughty chap, and he’s up for it all the time, with the ladies and the fellas. He tells us this, talking straight to the camera, forewarning us to be prepared for just how much of a libertine he truly is.
Oh, what a rascal. And he’s played by Johnny Depp. Wearing a wig recalling the heady days of hair metal bands from the 80s. Of course they don’t believe the opening pronouncement, and they don’t really expect us to believe it either.
Of course we’re meant to like him. He’s Johnny Depp, for Christ’s sake. He can make women from great-grandmothers to trembling girlie-girls weak in the knees and wet in the gusset. And he makes grown men question their sexuality. Whether he plays the swishy pirate in Pirates, or the cross-dressing director in Ed Wood, or kiddie-fiddler J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, he is respected for his choice in film roles, for the quality of his acting and is almost universally adored for his charming good looks and roguish ways.
It’s enough to make you vomit with rage and envy.
Look, I like the guy too, and he’s usually the best part of the films he’s in, but that doesn’t mean everything he is in is golden. In fact, far from it.
The Libertine is a picture perfect example of this. Mediocre film, with a decent performance by Depp, but nothing special. Considering this flick’s troubled production history, it would never have been released by Miramax (now The Weinstein Company) if Depp wasn’t in it. It probably wouldn’t have been made without Depp, for that matter.
It is a loosely biographical telling of the Earl of Rochester’s short life story: he lived, he said some witty stuff, wrote some poetry, drank a shitload of booze, slutted around, and died, at a young age, of multiple diseases. All this occurred (at least, the film is set) during the reign of Charles II, commonly referred to as the Restoration Era.
It is a time marked by massive curly wigs and elaborate frock coats, and that’s just for the men, and a time of social upheaval. I guess any time over the last five thousand years can be typified as a time of social upheaval, but in this case it was a pretty amazing time in English history.
The Restoration era refers to the time after the three wars that constituted the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and the Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell. This was also a time of plague outbreaks, religious persecutions, massacres and retaliations, and the Great London Fire in 1666 as well.
Charles II (John Malkovich), restored to the throne in 1660, likes John Wilmot a whole hell of a lot, favours him in fact, but every now and then feels compelled to exile him from London, whose fleshpits, theatres and grogshops he loves so much.
The film opens with the king telling his retainers to end Rochester’s banishment from London. He enjoys the bounder’s company, and wants him back at court, to tickle people’s fancies and jolly their rogers, or roger their jollies, I’m not sure which one
An unchastened Rochester travels back with his ever-loving wife Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike) to the London scene. John has a title for respectability, but the wife for money. Though he clearly holds his marital vows in contempt, there is affection for his saintly wife, who puts up with crap few people deserve to endure in a partner. In the midst of a coach ride and whilst arguing about what John plans to do in London, he gives her a quick finger-banging trip down memory lane for old time’s sake.
Once back, he wants booze, wenches and pretty boys, in that order. His friends, also clad in the foppish clobber of the day, are also peers of the realm, drunks and poet/playwrights. They endeavour to out-witticism each other and to write the next play which will transform the London stage.
Rochester claims to love the theatre more than anyone or anything else on this earthly realm, so it seems odd that he would fixate upon an actress booed off the stage for her general crappiness. But he sees something in her that no-one else can, and endeavours to make Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) the greatest actress of the age.
One of the features of the Restoration era was that the theatre itself made a comeback, and women, excluded from treading the boards during Elizabethan times and the troublesome years that followed, could perform. Of course, they’re represented as being not more than a step removed from prostitutes, but that’s in keeping with the reality of the age.
Barry starts off timid and ungainly, but through battle with John, her talent blooms and she becomes the belle of the London stage. The scenes between Morton and Depp are the best the film has to offer. The dialogue is rich and complex, betraying the movie script’s origins as a play, but is delivered by actors at the top of their craft.
Of course, these constitute only a few minutes of the film’s overall running time. That leaves us with the rest of the film to endure, with a mixture of surprise or boredom, depending on whether you’re silly enough to go see it.
The king commissions Rochester to write a play to honour his reign. He wants his gloriousness to be reflected in some Great Works in order to secure his legacy. In his words, “Elizabeth had her Shakespeare, you could be mine.” But Rochester has other ideas, naturally.
It is never completely clear what motivates Rochester most of the time. He gives an explanation to the actress as to why he wants to be her mentor, but it never really rings true. Most of his other actions, including the diabolical work he delivers for the edification of the King seem motivated more from perversity than any spirit of independence or rebellion.
More often that not, it seems like adolescent immaturity gets his motor running. I don’t need an explanation as to why he loved drinking, since, hell, I love drinking too, but the movie doesn’t explain why he seemed to be trying to drink himself to death.
For a man famous for his lecherous debauchery, he really doesn’t appear to have earned his title as a libertine. We see him drink, shag an actress, and use a few choice curse words. By that logic, The Libertine could have been about me. I’ve consumed alcohol. I’ve had sex with an actress or two. I’ve cursed a blue streak. I don’t see anyone queuing up at my front door to make a film about my depraved life.
Which I’m sure comes as a surprise to all of you.
He sees himself as a gadfly, a perpetual tick in the ear of society, using wit and cutting remarks to prick the conscience of the age, but for little greater purpose than just to set himself apart and above it all. You could guess that the makers envisage this as a junior version of the Marquis De Sade in Quills, of someone who seeks to destroy the hypocritical, gilded cages that trap the individual within society, but it’s nothing so ambitious.
The film is shot in a deliberately murky way, with most scenes being shot and lit by candlelight, with a grainy, grimy look to everything. There’s a lot of shit in the streets, and the decline of our hero is quite ugly, as is most of the cast. Rosamund Pike is the sole exception, looking heart-breakingly beautiful and luminous as the loyal wife.
The pleasant sheen that usually coats these kinds of productions is entirely absent. When the Earl begins his eventual decline, the makers do not stint on making him look like death warmed up, soaked in sewerage, refrozen, and then warmed over again. Which is a shameful thing to do to one of the most beautiful men alive, even if it is appropriate in the context.
Context is most certainly what the film lacks. As a biopic, with so many details of his life fudged and distorted, it fails to engage our attention or sustain it, nor does it give us any reason to think that the life illuminated for us through the story was really worth illuminating. Though the film is long and tiresome, it also seems to have whole slabs missing from it, where themes and storylines disappear without trace, never to return. There is no consistent vision or theme, no reason to suppose the Earl or his life mattered for any other reason than that he could turn a phrase and shag a lot. The ‘big speech’ scene towards the end, recalling similar crap in better and worse films, which is usually followed by a slow, building hand clapping, is insulting and tacked on.
I liked it for the dialogue, and some of the performances, but nowhere near enough to recommend it to anyone else, even fans of Depp’s or of depictions of the Restoration era on film. There is a reason this flick has languished on the shelf for nearly four years before being released, and perhaps should never have been released at all.
5 sexually transmitted diseases that probably killed the Earl of Rochester at age 33 out of 10.