BY KHALILAH WALTERS
Johnny Depp, playing John Wilmot with roguish relish, issues a warning in the prologue of The Libertine that is perhaps more prescient than intended: “You will not like me.” It quickly becomes clear why Wilmot and The Libertine are so unlikable: the over-the-top, cheesy vulgarity quickly tires, and their few redeemable qualities do not suffice to cure their excesses.
In his directorial debut, Laurence Dunmore helms this adaptation of William Jeffreys’ play about 17th century poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. The Libertine begins in 1678, when King Charles II, played excellently by John Malkovich, recalls a banished Wilmot to his court in London. Charles commissions Wilmot to write a profound play to impress the French King Louis, from whom Charles hopes to wring the finances to keep the British monarchy afloat. What ensues is a chronicle of the earl’s life and times as he careens from alehouse to whorehouse in debauchery calculated to embarrass the most rakish of courtiers.
Dunmore effectively captures the moral miasma that was court life through cinematography that is murky and dark, notably lacking in the color and splendid regalia of the typical Hollywood period piece. Credit must go the filmmakers for keenly portraying the unglamorous aspects of the court and giving a truer-to-life depiction of the theatre of the age than many similar films venture to create. Yet this is overexploited to such an extent that it quickly loses its effect. The filmmakers seem most comfortable in showing the most obscene elements of the sewer society, such that The Libertine is rendered a sophomoric exercise in shock and awe cinema. But after the umpteenth gratuitous flash of décolletage and bodies supposedly writhing in all manner of illicit sexual bliss, and after the millionth four-letter word, it is hard to suppress a yawn. The prurient humor is cheap and tawdry, relying more on vulgarity than wit. The corpulent, gluttonous Sackville (Johnny Vegas) is trotted out at every cut that could use a splash of humor. The title “Libertine” conjures up images of sensual excesses and hedonistic pleasure. Unfortunately, though The Libertine tries its darnedest to be naughty, it accomplishes naughty repulsive, not naughty good. As for the scenes that in earlier, unedited form had earned The Libertine an NC-17 rating, to say they were all bawdiness and no sensuality would be to appraise them charitably. Some, particularly the intended raunch-fest with Wilmot and his wife getting frisky on their chariot ride to London, are downright embarrassing and unintentional comedy.
Johnny Depp seems to enjoy his role as the rake of the century. His nasty scowl is to be found from scene to sneering scene. It is possible to create a sympathetic antihero. Sadly, the film doesn’t make a case for why anyone should care about a pestilential sore-ridden syphilitic with no credit to his personage other than an ability to elicit thespian excellence from an ambitious prostitute. Though it may be a testament to Wilmot’s character that he is magnetized by an ugly actress hated by her audience, the devotion of his long-suffering wife to Wilmot is entirely baffling. So too the trust King Charles repeatedly places in Wilmot, who obnoxiously emerges from his alcohol-induced blackouts to crap on Charles’ regard at every opportunity.
I suppose one compelling plotline of The Libertine would be Wilmot’s tireless efforts in developing actress Elizabeth Barry’s talents, resulting in her becoming an accomplished and revered stage presence. Naturally, none of this is to be undermined by the fact that she too becomes another in the long list of Wilmot’s sexual conquests. What becomes of their relationship as the player Wilmot gets played is one interesting standout twist of The Libertine. It is a testament to Wilmot’s self-destructiveness, and adds needed complexity and dimension to the film.