2½ stars (out of four)
"Do you like me now?" Johnny Depp asks at the end of "The Libertine"--playing the title role of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, famed Restoration rake and wit. It's a cruel, mocking question in an intermittently fascinating, sometimes deeply unpleasant movie. Depp, with his angelic features and casual wit and charm, is certainly one of our most likable actors. But Rochester, as imagined by playwright-screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys, is not just a little bit evil. We like him at our peril.
In the last act, cheeks pocked, the flesh all but rotting on his bones, the alcohol-poisoned and syphilitic Rochester lurches along on canes as he brags of his debaucheries, while speaking in Parliament in ravaged but eloquent support of his nemesis, King Charles II. By then, Rochester looks like the hidden picture of Dorian Gray, every crime blazing from his diseased face. If we warm to him at all, it's because of Depp, who breathes a light, dancing spirit into this lesser de Sade.
The movie, the feature-directing debut of commercial/video veteran Laurence Dunmore, takes Rochester through the last few years of his life in the late 1670s, concentrating on his stormy relationships with his fiercely proud actress-mistress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) and his initially indulgent but eventually enraged monarch Charles II (played by John Malkovich, the Rochester of the Steppenwolf production of Jeffreys' play).
Yet, though it's an intelligent work, with a great cast and some inspired moments--especially from Depp, Morton and Malkovich--"The Libertine" ultimately falls apart, just as Rochester does. It's a bit too muddy, dismal-looking and smoky to beguile us, too fixated on filth and too dreary-looking to really shock us.
Dunmore, with the help of some of maverick film aesthete Peter Greenaway's creative team (production designer Ben Van Os and composer Michael Nyman), first shows us Rochester in the high sun of his fame, trying to coach his mistress Barry into becoming the great actress of the time--he does and she leaves him--while parrying with Charles II, who wants him as a kind of personal poet laureate.
Rochester's fall seems accomplished primarily with a single play: the royally commissioned performance of what becomes a sex-crazed epic, a deliberately provocative satiric slam at the king, complete with giant phalluses on stage. (Dunmore plays it for sheer reeking Ken Russell-ish stage scandal.) And all too quickly, it seems--or at least compressed much to move us--Rochester's dissolute ways leave him lying on a sickbed while his mother tidily burns his pornographic drawings on the lawn.
If anyone could make us sympathize with this monster of self-destruction, it's Depp, a modern movie Dorian Gray. (He could pass for the nephew of Hurd Hatfield, who played Gray in the 1945 movie.) But "The Libertine" looks diseased itself, every scene drowned in murk. Films set in the Restoration, like "Stage Beauty," often work best with a mix of high spirits, foul language, fun and lush period feel. But "The Libertine" reaches for something deeper, something near tragedy. For that, it lacks the depth.
It doesn't lack Depp though. Whether he's spewing dirty inspired monologues or trading nasty badinage, he redeems the film, if not Rochester's soul. He's the main reason to watch "The Libertine," a movie whose sins finally weigh too heavily on the screen.
Directed by Laurence Dunmore; written by Stephen Jeffreys, based on his play; photographed by Alexander Melman; edited by Jill Bilcock; production designed by Ben Van Os; music by Michael Nyman; produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith. A Weinstein Co. release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:15. MPAA rating: R (strong sexuality including dialogue, violence and language).
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester - Johnny Depp
Elizabeth Barry - Samantha Morton
Charles II - John Malkovich
Elizabeth Malet - Rosamund Pike
Etherege - Tom Hollander
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