A brutally realistic film
JOHNNY DEPP delivers one of the best performances of his career in Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine, a true story about John Wilmot, a man who didn’t feel alive unless he exceeded every limit.
Wilmot, the debauched second Earl of Rochester, didn’t care who he offended and went head to head with King Charles II (Malkovich) in the late 1600s, repeatedly upsetting him with his bawdy take on life. As a poet, playwright and rebel, his appetite for wine and women scandalised 17th century England. This film is a brutally realistic evocation of the time, perhaps the most authentic ever consigned to film.
From the start, you know that it is going to be a journey into depravity, with Rochester’s opening monologue stating that he doesn’t want you to like him. He is a free spirit without any sense of morality. His aristocratic wife, Elizabeth (Pike), is a study in high class and puts up with his antics while remaining completely in love with him, while his friends bask in his raucous, intelligent glow.
Charles II accepts Rochester into his court, for his spirited personality and artistic talent. Unaware of his potential to become a rogue and troublemaker, he commissions Rochester to write a play for a visiting dignitary. Unfortunately, he squanders his genius on booze and women, completing the commission only to discover that he might be in love with his lead actress, Elizabeth Barry (Morton). When he falls for the upcoming actress, the seeds of his doom are sown and, with the obscene nature of his play, he is forced to leave the court and London, to avoid the wrath of the king. He escapes for a number of years, during which time he exposes himself to disease and demons, returning physically diminished and close to death.
This is a wonderfully grimy period film – the countryside swirls with absinthe-coloured fogs and St James’ Park is a Bosch-like nightmare, featuring fascinating characters played by exceptional actors.
Morton is fantastic as the Earl’s soulmate, while Malkovich’s puffy, careworn King is both sympathetic and threatening. Johnny Vegas is surprisingly effective as Sackville, but it is Depp who excels, exuding danger and sexuality from the start. He plays Rochester as a prototype rock star, stumbling from bar to brothel, deflating hypocrisy and declaiming pornographic poetry. This is the kind of film that Johnny Depp loves, understands and unfurls his nastiest acting regalia for. It’s a role that he takes to extremes and excesses. Even when he turns into an outcast and monster, hiding his disfigured face from society, it is impossible to take your eyes off him. This dazzling tour de force of a man who loses his soul, then his heart, then his body, shows him as a perfectly convincing quintessential libertine, not likeable, but utterly mesmerising.
However, even though his interaction with Morton and Pike is sharp and smart, filmmakers keep it from being as emotional as it should be. As artful and lively as this film is, they get bogged down in their moralising message, only offering token portrayals of decadence in lieu of a cautionary tale about a wasted life. Despite this, Depp holds it together, keeping you glued to your seats.
This is a fine feature debut for director Laurence Dunmore. The Libertine is more of a calling card for his future work than a fully rounded triumph in its own right.