The Good: Decent acting, Interesting story, Intriguing characters
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Monologues to camera, Disconnect from audience
The Basics: With its strongly unlikable protagonist, The Libertine offers Johnny Depp a chance to create an amazing performance, too late for the viewer to care.
Johnny Depp seems to be one of those actors who will do something designed to make him a boatload of cash, so he can spend time doing artistic projects when his basic needs are met. I say this because after Edward Scissorhands (reviewed here!) and Ed Wood he did Dead Man (reviewed here!), and after Pirates Of The Caribbean, he did Finding Neverland and The Libertine. I think that's pretty cool; Kevin Spacey does something similar to help aspiring directors and fellow actors. Unfortunately, Depp's efforts to do something more substantial than Captain Jack Sparrow put him in a role that is by definition unlikable, as Depp attempts to convince the audience of from the outset.
John Wilmont, the second Earl of Rochester, is brought out of exile by King Charles II when Charles needs a poet and fall guy. Wilmont surrounds himself with less reputable associates like a thieving servant and whoremonger like himself with the improbable name Alcock. When Charles II becomes dependent on allying himself with or fighting the French to save his monarchy, Charles enlists Wilmont to entertain the French ambassador. Wilmont, who is hopelessly in love with a starlet of his own creation, creates a pornographic satire that enrages the king and sends him scurrying.
Wilmont is, from the first moments, an arrogant character - anyone who implores the viewer to think of him when having sex is a bit over-the-top - and he applies our moral code to himself. That is to say that Wilmont tells the viewer that we will not like him, which seems to be more a modern take on his lack of ethics and his tendencies toward promiscuity than his own moral code. Or with a somewhat retrospective view of his own life, Wilmont is admitting he does not like himself that much. Either way, the result is the same; the viewer does not like the Second Earl of Rochester.
This effectively kills the movie. Wilmont, and Depp, are in almost every scene of the movie, making it difficult to watch after a time. Depp so convincingly makes Wilmont an unlikable character - not so much for his promiscuity as his casual use of his friends and lovers, the way he discards all life around him, including his own - that it makes The Libertine virtually unwatchable. We don't care what happens to Rochester, we just want the movie to end.
The feelings Rochester (as a titled lord, he is addressed as "Rochester" rather than "Wilmont" throughout the film) expresses toward Elizabeth Barry - the actress - seem belated and forced and uncharacteristic. For those looking for Johnny Depp in a sexy performance, look elsewhere; Rochester ends up horribly disfigured by syphilis and loping around the screen on crutches, blind in one eye. This is not a character who lives smart and he suffers very real repercussions of his lifestyle.
What works is the direction/cinematography and the acting. Laurence Dunmore, who directed The Libertine, uses a green wash to make it a black and green movie (not quite black and white) which creates a darker mood from the opening and drenches the film quite effectively in misery. The visual cues from the opening are that this is a place in decay. We are watching the decay of a free spirit. It works on that front quite well and I salute the director for doing something creative to make the movie more palatable or interesting to watch - though "yea" for orgy scenes, too!
Samantha Morton gives a decent supporting performance as Elizabeth Barry. She is convincing as an actress desiring roles and affection. She has a strong screen presence that easily rivals Depp when she appears on screen. Similarly, John Malkovich takes on another period piece, as Charles II and manages to steal the screen every time he's on it. He keeps the movie flowing with a sense of presence that dominates his character's arc and makes the viewer wish for him to do a movie focusing on the trials and tribulations of Charles II - the b-story with his difficulties in maintaining the monarchy are more interesting than Rochester's debaucheries. Malkovich takes the supporting role and rules with it.
Depp gives a great performance near the end of The Libertine. In the beginning, he is presenting an arrogant, somewhat roguish and attractive character that we've seen from Depp before. We get that he can do such a role. We want to see something new, different and better from him. The Libertine gives us that, but far too late for us to care. Depp's portrayal of Rochester as a syphilitic quasi-invalid is brilliant. Perhaps the movie would have been more engaging had we begun with him in his deteriorated state and flashed back to his reckless years. Rochester might appear more human that way. Either way, Depp's performance of Rochester's later life is worthy of attention.
Sadly, it's not enough to recommend this film. The mood, the narrative and the sheer unlikability of the principle characters makes it difficult to watch The Libertine once, much less more than once.
For other works with Rosamund Pike, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Wrath Of The Titans
The Big Year
Pride and Prejudice
Die Another Day
For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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