England, 1675. John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), the Earl of Rochester, finds his banishment lifted by King Charles II (John Malkovich). The King banished Wilmot a few months earlier for writing a poem critical of the Monarchy, but now Charles finds himself in a predicament. After fifteen years of increased personal, sexual and artistic freedoms, the British people are now dealing with disease, warfare and natural disaster. They aren't happy and this is testing Charles' reign. Charles decides Wilmot will write a play. However, Wilmot views his return to society as license to drink as much as he wants, sleep with as many people as possible and the King be damned.
"The Libertine", directed by Laurence Dunmore and written by Stephen Jeffreys, based on his own play, is a very good film, for the most part.
The film opens with Depp in darkness and shadow, holding a wine glass, moving towards the candlelight and into our view. Wilmot informs us "You will not like me". As he continues, he announces "Ladies, I am up for it all the time." This scene is already one of the most memorable in recent film. Because it is Johnny Depp, many women (and for that matter, some men) will swoon as soon as he appears onscreen, but as he begins to warn us, he further cements our memory of this character. His frank and open manner is very memorable.
Sure enough, as the film progresses, we don't like Wilmot. It is a testament to Depp's skill as an actor that we don't really care. Depp's portrayal is interesting and challenging, both of which more than make up for the lack of a likable hero in the story. Wilmot enjoys all of the pleasures of living in society and enjoys them well. As he and his wife ride back to London, he fondles her as she recounts how they initially met, a strangely erotic story portrayed in a charged way. In London, he immediately revisits a favorite bordello. Soon, he meets Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), an actress who attracts his attention and receives his guidance. A good example of his uninhibited nature is displayed when Wilmot meets the man who will eventually become his new valet. After setting a test for the subject, Wilmot is surprised to learn the man's name is Allcock. Very fitting for the playwright. All the while, he drinks, and drinks, and drinks. Depp manages to make all of this carousing and carrying on seem entirely natural.
Later, when Charles calls upon John to write the play, for a visit from the French Ambassador, he pens a work about Charles, as only Wilmot can. But that is best left to your discovery.
What I didn't get from the film, or Depp's performance, was evidence of why Wilmot is remembered today as a good writer. During a few scenes, he creates some interesting verbal word play, but the one play we get a glimpse of is clearly designed to offend the monarch and little else. The work seems amateurish, even childish in execution, so it doesn't work as a testament to his ability as a writer.
"The Libertine" is strangely beautiful to watch. I suspect the movie was filmed using high definition video and available light. As all lighting during this period is provided by candle, light sources are inconsistent, flickering, allowing more dark to seep into the frame. Because of this same lack of light, the film has a very grainy look and all objects are drained of color imbuing a sepia tone throughout. As you watch the story, you get the sense of reading an old book, or looking at old drawings torn from a 17th Century manuscript. The look of the film is further enhanced by attention to detail in both costumes (suitably elaborate) and scenery (suitably muddy and dark). The look of the film is entirely successful, capturing details of London during the Seventeenth Century.
Samantha Morton and John Malkovich are both good, restrained and believable, providing a nice counterpoint to Depp's more theatrical performance. Malkovich doesn't scream or rant, as you might expect, giving his portrayal of Charles II more believability, more vulnerability. Charles II was vulnerable during this period, so it works. Morton brings a quiet power to her performance. Manipulated by Wilmot and Charles, she seems a pawn throughout. But as we watch her performance, we begin to question that, and realize perhaps she is stronger than we initially thought.
"The Libertine" is a very good film, featuring a memorable, uninhibited performance by Depp. But it doesn't fulfill its initial promise to convince us of why Wilmot is still remembered to this day. A late scene in the film shows a number of his writings and drawings being destroyed by a family member. Why was he remembered as a great writer? How was he remembered? Through word of mouth? How were his writings remembered?
Hopefully, the film will not suffer the same fate as its `hero'.