“You will not like me now, and you will like me a good deal less as we go on.”
The Libertine was made back in 2004, but only now is it seeing the big screen. Why it has taken so long to get there? I don’t know. All I can really say, is that I am glad it did. It moves with a self-assured swagger, a confidence that borders on egotism. A slow, deliberate pace sets the stage for this tale of depravity and the downward spiral that was the fate of its subject.
The movie is an entertaining look into the life and times of 2nd Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, who was known for being friends with King Charles II, as much as for his womanizing and drinking, and to another extent, his writing. His sad life and times are captured in a story that is at turns tragic and comic.
Johnny Depp stars as Wilmot, delivering another in a long line of excellent performances. He brings such a nuanced performance with a full range of emotions to a character who has rather reprehensible proclivities that you can at times find yourself on the precipice of actually caring for him. Those moments don’t last long as he inevitably does something to bring the reality of his nature crashing back into your perceptions.
Wilmot, a man possessing an incredible intelligence, is drawn to the darker impulses of life. Rather than resist, he seeks them out, using them as a focused outlet for his creativity.He wrote perverse prose and promiscuous plays, using these baser elements to criticize society and the monarchy. The Libertine follows the rise and fall, and rise and fall of his creativity and personal life.
Recently returned from exile in the country, Wilmot goes with his wife to London, where he quickly falls into to his old ways of drinking with his fellow writers and spending many a night at the bordellos. Soon enough, however, two things come up which have a profound affect on his future.
First, he is charged with writing a play for the King, to be put on while entertaining the visiting French royalty. The other is the entrance of an actress, Elizabeth Barry, who is booed off the stage during a performance. Wilmot sees her as an opportunity and he vows to teach her to be a better actress. She seems to be a possible path of redemption, as he recognizes something in her and is not seeking outright sexual favors, as he does of other women. This is, of course, at the expense of his wife.
The combination of the play and the actress work, however, to assist his decline into drink and sexual depravity. He writes a play that acts as much as a celebration of carnal pursuits as it does an indictment of the monarchy. This doesn’t go over well with King Charles II, who halts the performance and sends Wilmot into exile, once again. Meanwhile, his fascination with Elizabeth incites his feelings to a state of love. However, she was just using him to get ahead, and decides that it is time to distance herself from his influence. As he goes into exile he is stricken by venereal disease which destroys his body and ultimately leads to his downfall, at the ripe old age of 33.
The Libertine is dirty. I’m not referring to the content, although that is an apt description of a good portion. I am speaking of the movie itself. Mud and dirt abound in the images slung at the screen. This is not really a color movie, as everything is in shades of brown. Add to that monochromatic palette, a grainy film texture and you get an interesting looking film that doesn’t look like everything else at the local cineplex.
The look sort of reminded my of Guy Maddin’s work, where he tries to emulate past periods (see The Saddest Music in the World, which emulates films of the silent era). Director Laurence Dunmore and cinematographer Alexander Melman’s work here is not quite that extreme, but it is reminiscent of that look.
The screenplay was written by Stephen Jeffreys, based on his play. It was originally brought to life in London back in 1994, before making its way to the theaters in Chicago. It was in Chicago where the lead was played by John Malkovich, who moves to the role of the King in the theatrical production. He has written a very self-assured screenplay, allowing the attitudes of his characters to flow unrestrained. It may not be the most well-rounded writing, but it has an attitude that rips through all pretense to get to the core of those he writes about in a script that is at times tragically dramatic and laugh out loud funny. He has found a perfect balance making you feel for the characters while making you laugh out loud at some of the wild antics that are portrayed. Of course, Johnny Depp’s masterful timing doesn’t hurt the proceedings.
The cast does an excellent job at creating interesting characters that you want to watch. Leading the cast is the brilliant Johnny Depp, who puts on an absolute acting clinic. He is incredible to watch as he plies his trade before us. The expressions, the little nuances, each facial tic all combining to create a character that goes beyond just acting, it is something to behold. Despite all of this, Depp is a generous actor, simultaneously commanding your attention yet equally adept at being generous with co-stars. His interplay with Samantha Morton’s Elizabeth Barry is great. Their exchanges become more and more pointed as her confidence grows and his emotions change. Morton is fantastic, making her character grow and change. John Malkovich is, well, John Malkovich as the King of England. Rounding out our main characters is Rosamund Pike as Wilmot’s wife, a woman who is willing to deal with her husband’s eccentricities, but she can only go so far.
Bottomline. An intriguing film, not to all tastes, as proven by the walkouts during my screening. Depp gives a fascinating performance, and proves his willingness to un-glamorize himself as the character deteriorates from his disease riddled body. More than that, as much as you wanted to dislike the character, he was alluring, making this movie a must-see. If for nothing other than the lead performance, it is worth the time, but there is a lot to like here.