As the various filmizations of Sade clearly demonstrate, maximum-velocity hedonism is as difficult to capture on celluloid as creative process or spiritual awakening—especially if you are not in fact making nihilistic pornography but a middle-class, pseudo-literate period draught for the likes of the Weinstein brothers. Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine, taken from the play of Stephen Jeffreys, falls into every baited trap: tippled goblets, shouts of “More wine!,” harlots’ cleavage ogled, phallic theatrics, dirty puns, bountiful Chaucerian proclamations of “cunt!” What it is is the cheesed-up life and times of one John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp, again with the half-hearted Masterpiece Theatre accent), who was doubly famous during the Restoration for writing scathingly obscene plays and for his misanthropic party habits. John and his sundry pleasure-seeking cohorts (Jack Davenport, Johnny Vegas) talk shit behind royalty’s back, drink, dally at brothels, and go to the theater—which John, in a rare moment of forthrightness, admits to being “my drug,” in reply to the shapeless misery of life outside.
This begins to matter, as does the film itself for a spell, once the Earl espies actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), falls for her, and decides to
retrain her in her craft. Never mind that the “lessons” are essentially Strasberg-style Method tricks employed three centuries too early—Morton typically installs herself at center stage and takes over, in a surprisingly fierce and unpredictable role. “You could buy my slit for a pound a night, sir!” she hollers at him, but she will not be courted, indebted, or controlled. Naturally, Depp’s bleary care-nothing is besotted, but his boozing, his seditious rebellions (against John Malkovich as a giga-creepy, Vincent Price–ish Charles II), and Barry’s dedication to acting spell doom for the romance.
Music video director Dunmore decorates in vintage Gilliam, all mud, smoke, farm animals, and buffoonish clutter. To make his atmospheric points, he never hesitates to dip down and refocus his lens on a field of compressed bosom or a sloppy mud puddle. Beyond how familiar and therefore unimpressive this costume drama faux-realism is, The Libertine‘s trouble lies precisely in its efforts at conjuring the historical past: No one in the film seems much more convinced than I am that because playwrights and authors wrote in clever, high post-Elizabethan diction, then everyone spoke that way every day, in the pubs, with whores. No one, ahem, except for Morton, whose unwavering conviction reflects Barry’s as well, and who appears to be capable of lending credence to any weak idea or hobbled drama. Because the scenario depends upon Barry’s vivid ferocity, The Libertine rises above its clichés, at least while her defenses are up and her eyes are hot with glory.
Depp hardly seems motivated; you get the idea the Earl was just lazy, but an omitted bit of biography, in which he kidnapped a teenaged heiress and then married her after being apprehended and jailed in the Tower of London, suggests more of a 17th-century Keith Moon. Finally, Dunmore’s movie becomes a kind of Al-Anon epic; the Earl’s hooch-fueled dissolution resembles the eons’ impact on Dorian Gray so entirely that you wonder if he had contracted leprosy along the way. (Syphilis is hinted at, which is good because I’ve never met, nor heard of, anyone who drank so much his nose fell off.) Despite the sniffly closure, his fate registers as less than a tragedy.