A Noble With Big, and Fatal, Appetites
To watch Johnny Depp's titular voluptuary in "The Libertine" take a mincing step around a dead rat whisker-deep in mud is to appreciate that the life of a 17th-century hedonist was rough going, at least out of the sack. As if that rat weren't bad enough, buckets of oozing dun-colored mud inform the visual scheme as well as the tone of this aggressively unpleasant gloss on the life and bad-boy times of the second Earl of Rochester (born John Wilmot), which tracks the down-, down-, downward spiral of the satirist, poet and rake whose name became synonymous with debauchery.
Born in 1647, the second Earl of Rochester entered the English court at 17, an event that marked the beginning of his dazzling career and the beginning of its end. Samuel Johnson's précis of the arc of that life is beautiful enough to quote at length: "Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of 1 and 30, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay."
Tough words, but Johnson also included Rochester in his "Lives of the English Poets." Voltaire wrote that he was "a man of genius and the great poet," and Charlotte Brontë may have named Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester after him. Graham Greene, himself a man of noteworthy appetites, even made him the subject of a full-fledged biography. Centuries after his death in 1680, Rochester remains a central figure in serious considerations of the Restoration and its social and cultural upheavals.
All of which makes you wonder what the unfortunate earl, who apparently gasped his last syphilitic breath without a working nose, did to deserve the trivializing attentions of the film's director, Laurence Dunmore, making his screen debut, and Stephen Jeffreys, who adapted his own play of the same title.
You need not have seen Mr. Jeffreys's play, which was first mounted in London in 1994, to experience it since the film is itself rigorously stagy. As is often the case in mainstream theater, characters make pronouncements and deliver speeches like so many polite schoolchildren waiting their turn. The rhythms of the dialogue move to the same beat as steadily as a metronome ticks and tocks, while every sentence is polished like stone, absent the jaggedness of real breath and life. You can hear the play in this thing without even knowing it was based on a theatrical production. And, indeed, the first clue to the film's genesis arrives in the opening scene, in which Rochester rises from a pool of black and grandly announces to the camera, "You will not like me."
The modern pop-culture vulture knows that is a lie. This is Johnny Depp, after all, Edward Scissorhands and Capt. Jack Sparrow, the lost boy and rock 'n' roll pirate with the delicate jaw and bottomless eyes who has earned our love since the dry-look hair and salad days of television's "21 Jump Street." And because it is Johnny Depp, it's a good guess that we will want to like his character very much, no matter whether Rochester is pleasuring his wife (a rare moment in the film in which sex doesn't seem like a really bad idea) or abandoning a mortally wounded friend to his fate. Mr. Depp's beauty and talent do not lend themselves to our displeasure, and neither does his stardom, which is partly why he was cast.
Even so, there is a story to be told, and the one told here largely involves Rochester's relationship with the actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) and with Charles II, played by John Malkovich with a banana schnoz and what looks like a poodle pelt adorning his head. (One of the film's producers, Mr. Malkovich played Mr. Depp's role at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.) Rochester was a favorite of the king, whose regard he returned with lines like, "Restless he rolls about from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor." Rochester dipped his quill without regard for his health or safety, and contrary to the evidence in the film, found time to write memorably. If he enjoyed himself along the way, you would scarcely know it from "The Libertine," which takes such a simplistic view of sex that there's no room for its pleasures or powers - creative, social, cultural, political..
Rochester also found time to train and impregnate Barry, whom he took under his wing after she bombed early in her career. Ms. Morton, to put it charitably, does not persuade as an immortal of the stage. Leaving aside her voice, which sounds too puny for the boards, there is the larger issue of her self-contained, inwardly directed performance style, which at this point in her development seems best suited for playing oddities ("Minority Report") and raging narcissists ("Morvern Callar"). Even so, Ms. Morton gamely attempts to transform into an actress who can be loved by the audience no matter what the role, which means she effectively tries to turn her character into Johnny Depp, a performer whom we will like, nose or no nose, good role or bad.
"The Libertine" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The film has nudity, adult language and some violence.