John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp), was one of the most brilliant writers in King Charles the second's (John Malkovich) court. He was also one of the most amoral and hedonistic people ever to have lived, even when compared to the notoriously loose morals of his contemporaries. The Libertine follows this self-destructive genius from the height of his powers as the King's official playwright, through his disgrace, banishment and finally his ignominious death at age 33. Along the way we meet some of the leading lights of Reformation England, including playwright George Etherege (Tom Hollander) - whose play "Man of Mode" was based on Wilmot's life - and Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), the most celebrated actress of her generation.
From the very moment Johnny Depp intones "I do not want you to like me" into the camera at the start of the movie, you know you're going to end of loving the scoundrel. A pity we can't say the same for the murky, muddled and overlong film that this loveable rogue inhabits. As it flits from comedy to tragedy to philosophical debate to historical record, the only thing holding the film together is the consistently superb performances by the gifted cast.
Depp himself carries more than his share of the burden. Stalking through the movie like a gorgeous predatory cat, Depp plays Wilmot with deceptive ease. He turns what could easily be a caricature into a rich and disturbingly real character. Repulsive but powerfully attractive, dangerous but irresistible, blessed but also damned, Depp's performance might be as close to Earl himself as we will ever get.
The supporting cast as no less brilliant. Samantha Morton gives yet another stand out performance as Wilmot's pupil, the proto-feminist Elizabeth Barry. She is a particularly good foil for Depp as they are matched both in talents and intensity, and their scenes together are the best in the film. John Malkovich, who also produced the film, has a ball playing King Charles II. Sporting a remarkably convincing false nose and a luxuriant wig, he seems to have sprung fully formed from 17th century England. The rest of the supporting cast are equally magnetic, with Tom Hollander and Johnny Vegas adding texture and levity as Wilmot's cronies.
The film's looks are far less attractive, though not for lack of effort. First time director Laurence Dunmore has a distinctive visual flair honed by years in advertising, but has gone rather overboard here. The film has been so overzealously muddied and mucked up that the entire world seems to have been soaked in dirty water. You can hardly see the characters sometimes, for all the fog and murk. Style is all very well, but not when it starts to intrude on the movie as a whole.
But the film's real failing is in the cutting room. Adapted from a play, the plot has been allowed to meander and muddle along for far longer than is necessary. Granted, we shouldn't expect frenetic, Mission Impossible style pacing, but too many scenes are either overlong or unnecessary, and their weight drags the film a full twenty minutes past our tolerance for its subject matter.
If, on balance, The Libertine is a failure, then it is a noble one. It's lamentably rare for a film - commercial or otherwise - to suffer from too much care and effort. It's much easier to forgive a director for trying too hard than not hard enough. And besides, watching Johnny Depp play the skollie is always worth the price of admission.
- Alistair Fairweather
We love watching Johnny Depp play a skollie, especially one as naughty as John Wilmot. It almost doesn't matter that The Libertine is so murky that you can hardly tell what's going on.
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