It’s hard to say for sure when I gave up on The Libertine, but it was probably when the greased-up midget entered stage right, riding atop a papier-mâche phallus. Looking back, that was pretty much where the wheels came off the crazy train.
Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his play and directed by Laurence Dunmore, the film follows the sad life and sexual exploits of John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), Earl of Rochester, poet, and pretty horny little guy. In the rambling prologue, Wilmot addresses the viewer directly, warning the viewer that “you will not like me.” It’s a bad start for two reasons: First, what works in the theater rarely translates to the screen without losing its power. A commanding live monologue can capture the audience’s attention, but things have to be drastically toned down for film, which is a medium of subtlety over sound. The inherent artifice in Wilmot’s introduction is unavoidable, even for an actor of Depp’s skill. Second, having the protagonist announce his unworthiness to the viewer is a huge gamble; after all, when the host comes out and says he isn’t worthy to emcee the show, the air gets sucked out of the room. There’s a track record for bristly antiheroes, sure — Vincent Vega springs to mind — but we keep rooting for them because, despite their unlikability, we at least recognize the presence of a rounded character. Our feelings for them might never turn into genuine liking, but there is a respect there: I never came close to having the smallest positive feeling for Roger Swanson, the main character in Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger, but at least I saw the truth in the character. Come to think of it, Kidd would have been a good choice to helm The Libertine. His sexual immaturity and scatological sensibility would have suited the film perfectly.
In the late 1600s, England’s King Charles II (John Malkovich in a ludicrous prosthetic nose) finds his back against the political wall, unable to find cash from Parliament without attacking France and finding himself without French support unless he leans on Parliament. He summons Wilmot from countryside banishment to write an epic play to commemorate Charles’ reign; Wilmot’s eyes light up at the chance to churn out another pornographic ode to his own debauchery.
Ignoring his wife (Rosamund Pike) except for the chance to feel her up, Wilmot and his cohorts spend their time among inns and whorehouses, particularly favoring the services of Molly (Claire Higgins). Wilmot’s a functioning alcoholic with a penchant for working girls; given the hygiene of 17th-century London, it’s probably pretty obvious where this is headed. After taking in a play, Wilmot becomes infatuated with a talentless young actress, Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), whom he vows to turn into the best and most famous actress in the country. Why he attaches himself to her is lamentably unoriginal: Infamous lover looking for lasting love, emotionally stunted man seeks challenging woman with messiah complex, etc. It’s like an episode of “The O.C.” with ruffled shirts.
Wilmot begins to rehearse with Elizabeth, and Depp and Morton elevate the simplistic dialogue to something like a great soap opera. Still, even when Wilmot and Elizabeth discuss the necessities of passion in acting, the film feels rough and clumsy, almost unfinished. Scenes lack natural pacing, lingering too long on awkward reaction shots. Likewise, the dialogue dubbing, usually so competent in the most basic films, is often abysmal, for lack of a better word: While working with Elizabeth on stage, Wilmot’s dialogue is often colored by an analog hiss. In another sign of weak writing and hasty editing, some scenes last for only a few seconds, clear indication that Jeffreys started running out of ideas. After the first act, sequences feel arbitrarily tacked on, instead of allowing the action or emotion to build a natural flow.
In a deep lust masquerading as unrequited love for Elizabeth, Wilmot finally mounts his play, an overtly sexual work that features simulated masturbation, fellatio, and that midget I mentioned earlier. Naturally, the king, watching in the audience, is fairly upset, and stops the action to address Wilmot, who starts a small riot and escapes with Molly and one of his friends, Billy Downs (Rupert Friend). A minor gay relationship between Downs and Wilmot is hinted at, but never confirmed, despite Wilmot’s announcement in his prologue that he’s “up for it” with men and women alike. Wilmot’s friends find him months later in a pub, his long hair shorn to hide from the king’s guards and his face beginning to show signs of syphilitic rot. After another narrow escape, Wilmot flees to live with Molly, the film long since having lost any kind of narrative thread. Things just keep happening for no reason; I found myself wishing Wilmot would hurry up and die already. He returns home to his wife at the end, a far greater woman than Wilmot could have expected or deserves: She takes him in and cares for him in his failing health. He even manages to make some kind of amends with the king, perhaps sensing that this waste of a film has gone on far too long.
Johnny Depp is rightly hailed as one of the best actors of his generation, which is why it’s so disappointing the Academy didn’t see fit to honor his work until he played corporate ball and made The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a bloated theme-park movie that’s nowhere near the quality of his previous work (Donnie Brasco, anyone?). As for The Libertine, Depp must have seen an opportunity to take on a challenging role that would test his commitment to his craft. And while Depp is the only watchable part of the film, that’s certainly not saying much. There’s more here for him to enjoy as a technically gifted actor than there is for the viewer.
The entire film is blanketed in pea-soup fog, almost as if Dunmore can’t decide how he feels about Wilmot. Unfortunately, the filthy environment is more than mirrored in the vulgar speech and acts of the characters. The dialogue is coarser than any I’ve heard on film in a while; I’ve never heard the c-word used that much. Adults don’t even say the c-word, they say “the c-word.” It feels as if Jeffreys fell in love with porn when he hit puberty and never grew out of that puerile state. Wilmot’s servant is named Alcock, a name mined for the kind of junior-high humor that you’d expect; I don’t know why Jeffreys didn’t just name the character Hugh G. Rection and call it a day. When not trafficking in the startlingly blunt, The Libertine is littered with the kind of thinly veiled innuendoes aimed squarely at the target demo for wigs-and-wine period pieces like this one, namely, the middle-aged housewives who’d tune into something similar on A&E and cluck happily at the tales of bodices and ribaldry. And they can have it.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.The Libertine / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()