When I first saw commercials for “The Libertine”, not only the title, but the way Johnny Depp looked made me think of a cheesy metal band that I secretly enjoy called Cradle of Filth, and by the end of the film, the overall likeness between Depp and ghoulish Cradle of Filth lead singer Dani Filth was uncanny. If you need Google image search to understand this reference, please use it both before and after seeing “The Libertine”.
“The Libertine” is the film version of the play by Stephen Jeffreys and is directed by first timer Lawrence Dunmore. Though written in the 21st century, the language is inspired by Shakespearean era Britain . This aspect of English theatre always adds a barrier to understanding both the subtle and obvious points conveyed by the characters, and while this particular adaptation has a similar crux, the aide of rich visuals, cinema speakers and clear cut performances help overcome it.
A libertine is defined as a person free of moral restraints or boundaries, also known as a rake, if you prefer the apt comparison between someone controlled by sex, wine and defiance to a multi-fingered yard tool. John Wilmot (Johnny Depp) was the Earl of Rochester, an actual 17th century historical figure who was akin to the unwilling rock star of today, or maybe even Johnny Depp the actor. In the prologue, Wilmot instructs the viewer, “I don’t want you to like me”, but we quickly learn that deep inside Wilmot craves fame, praise and adoration, and is very hard not to like.
Wilmot was born into an aristocratic line and was meant to carry on his father’s work in the King’s court. He had a renowned gift for winning over the hearts of men and women with his charm and intelligence, but was more interested in writing dirty poems, attending the theatre, the whorehouse and anywhere there was wine. King Charles II (John Malkovich) had a love/hate (and possibly sexual) relationship with the irresistible troubadour, and called him back to London from banishment on commission to be his Shakespeare and write a play glorifying his reign. Depp and Malkovich both give astounding and committed performances, and their relationship is ambiguously fragile from the ebb and flow of their characters’ mutual respect and disdain.
On his return to London , Wilmot joins back up with his motley group of rich, young companions and relates the reason for his banishment. This being a playfully derogatory poem read aloud to the King about how his royal “member” was impotent. Sexual scenarios are used humorously as Wilmot employs a servant by the name of “Alcock”, he composes a poem out loud while receiving oral sex, and when a wench offers a breast to one of Wilmot’s cronies, the gentleman refutes the offer, saying, “No thank you, I’ve already eaten this morning.” The height of Wilmot’s Chaucer-like debauchery and need for rebellion comes in the form of his commissioned play, which is a hilarious ode to male genitalia and an outright slandering Charles’s reign.
Wilmot also has a serious brooding side that counters his self-effacing public stunts. Most of this is seen in his relationship with actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), whom he tutors to greatness, eventually falling in love with. She is depicted as the idealized version of Wilmot, someone extremely proud, vain and talented, but not afraid be disliked. The dynamic in their affair shows Wilmot at his best and also at his lowest possession of self awareness.
Star Johnny Depp is in a considerable amount of movies every year, and at times it makes me think that he is just being masturbatory by taking some average roles in average films (“Secret Window”, “Finding Neverland”, etc.) in order to stand out and carry them on his shoulders. But maybe his prolific career is more the sign of a versatile artist who wants to constantly practice his craft and is willing to star in roles that are not as good as he is just for the challenge. Whatever the reasons, Depp is incredible, and without him “The Libertine” would fail to re-coup the money spent feeding the cast.
“The Libertine” is part dirty comedy, part tragic character study and wholly solid piece of work that can appeal to fans of cinematic adaptations of theatre, Johnny Depp, or even just the general moviegoer looking for something out of the ordinary. While it is undeniably well cast and acted by all involved, it is really just about Johnny Depp.
Laurence Dunmore (director) / Laurence Dunmore (screenplay)
CAST: Johnny Depp …. Rochester
Samantha Morton …. Elizabeth Barry
John Malkovich …. King Charles II
Paul Ritter …. Chiffinch
Stanley Townsend …. Keown
Francesca Annis …. Countess
Rosamund Pike …. Elizabeth Malet