Despite inspired performance, jumbled direction hinders biopic about syphilitic sleazoid
“You will not like me,” John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), the 2nd Earl of Rochester, promises at the opening of “The Libertine.” “The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled I do not want you to like me.”
Be careful what you wish for.
You’d expect a libertine to be a fun guy, but John is a pompous bore. King Charles II (John Malkovich) dotes on him as a great poet and wit, but the women in John’s life are far more clever and profound.
Not his wife, Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike), who mostly whines about how he neglects her, but his mistress (and true love), the actress Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton), and his favorite whore, Jane (Kelly Reilly).
The King, knowing Rochester to be opposed to the monarchy, tries to co-opt him in 1675 into serving in the House of Lords and writing for the crown, even commissioning a play intended to win over the French for a critical alliance. This pornographic production, presented un-previewed (and thus uncensored), would be the highlight of the movie if it weren’t interrupted too soon.
The hedonist, who tells women he’s “up for it all the time” and tells men he’s “up for that as well,” suffers a slow, painful death from syphilis, which we get to watch. In this portion of the film, he actually becomes more interesting as Depp pours tremendous energy and skill into his performance, after coasting on Rochester’s reputation for the first two thirds.
Indeed, except for a couple of kisses (with women) and affectionate pats (with men), we have to take Rochester at his word about what a stud he is. The way he likes to cause trouble, he’s more of a contrarian than a libertine, alienating all but a few with his bluntness and caustic wit.
The episodic nature of “The Libertine” can be traced to its stage origin: Stephen Jeffreys adapted the screenplay from his own stage play, and it shows. (Malkovich played Rochester in a Chicago production.) In addition to moving jerkily from one scene to the next, the script dramatizes uninteresting moments while only talking about others that, while they would have been hard to stage, could have made dynamite cinema.
“Stage Beauty,” also based on a play and set a decade earlier in much the same milieu (theaters and the royal court), was funnier, sexier and told a better story. It also had a key subplot about a young actress emerging as a star and falling in love with her mentor.
A real historical character, John Wilmot was 33 when he died in 1680, the same age as Jesus Christ and Evita Peron. This would seem to qualify him for a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. If they write it, let’s hope they don’t use “The Libertine” as a blueprint.
Director: Laurence Dunmore
Cast: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton and John Malkovich
Opens today in wide release
1 hr., 54 min. R
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 10, 2006.