|The Libertine (2006)
Starring: Johnny Depp, John Malkovich, Samantha Morton, Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander
Director: Laurence Dunmore
In a prologue that appears just before Laurence Dunmore’s debut film, “The Libertine,” Johnny Depp appears in full costume as John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and introduces himself as a philandering drunkard who’s “up for it all the time.” Though crude and unexpected, his honesty is a welcome attribute that we don’t normally see in cinema. It’s a shame, then, that he had to go and tarnish that very admiration with the addition of five simple words: “You will not like me.” And you won’t; not because he’s such a disgusting person, but rather because the film frames him as so with murky lighting and embellished behavior.
This isn’t to say that Wilmot wasn’t an unfavorable man in his day. He has even been accredited to publishing the earliest form of written pornography featuring his own sexual escapades, as well as fantasies about rape and incest. In fact, my first encounter with the author’s work is still my most shocking literary memory to date, including a poem entitled “The Dying Lover to His Prick” in which Wilmot muses over the possibility of becoming impotent. A harrowing prospect indeed, especially for a man who’s existence is based upon the delicious sins of sex and alcohol, but if we can’t enjoy the company of the main character, what’s the point in sitting through a two-hour film about his life?
“The Libertine” begins smack dab in the middle of Restoration England, with King Charles II (John Malkovich) reigning over the country through an enthusiastic support of the arts. Wilmot, however, would much rather be out on the town getting sloshed or laid than sitting at home writing poetry for the monarch, and when he’s not doing any of the above, the boorish poet finds comfort in a good play. It’s at his most recent attendance of a London production where he meets the young actress Elizabeth Berry (Samantha Morton), a woman of incomparable talent whom Wilmot takes under his wing with the purpose of training her to become one of England’s greatest actresses. But when he’s assigned the task to write a play that will stand as a lasting monument to Charles II, Wilmot’s insulting effort forces him into banishment, where he discovers that he is dying.
Adapted from the Steven Jeffreys stage production, “The Libertine” is simply too occupied with shocking the audience with its over-the-top dialogue to notice that it’s not working. As far as I’m concerned, an entertaining character like Wilmot pays for itself, so why couldn’t the script have focused more on the comical side of the poet’s writing (like his Charles II play that is essentially about dildos) instead of the lackluster exploits that are featured here? Johnny Depp is a skilled actor who has proven over the years that he can pull off any role thrown his way, and he does it yet again with his portrayal of the famous libertine, but it’s hardly enough to save the film from being abhorred by legions of moviegoers for eternity. As yet another victim of the ugly high school break-up between Disney and the Weinstein Brothers, “The Libertine” feels hurried and unfinished. And to think what could have been…
Not much to talk about here, save for a making-of featurette and an undisclosed amount of deleted scenes.