The scatological, often shocking verse of John Wilmot (1647-1680), the second earl of Rochester and a notorious wit, rake and general provocateur, has never been much read–it’s much too raw and raunchy for tender ears–though it, and its author, have had famous admirers. (Graham Greene, for instance, wrote an admiring biography.) But whatever its flaws, it certainly has the virtues of directness and, for the most part, brevity. That’s certainly not the case with “The Libertine,” a quasi-historical character study of the still-obscure Restoration nobleman and writer. The script was adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own play, and sounds like it. It’s not only incessantly talky, but talky in that arch, affected fashion that not only sets one’s teeth on edge but induces deep drowsiness as well. The overall experience is rather like being doused with gas in a talkative dentist’s chair.
To its credit, the film does make some effort to adhere to what little is known of Wilmot’s later years and the reality of the political circumstances of the day, though it takes considerable liberties for dramatic effect and doesn’t hesitate to employ what are little more than myths about him, too. It touches on his relationships with three women (four if you count his censorious mother, played by Francesca Annis). There’s his wife (Rosamund Pike), whom he humiliates and abandons with alarming regularity. And his long-time mistress (Kelly Reilly), to whom he habitually returns. And a young actress (Samantha Morton), whom he transforms after her disastrous debut into the most famous performer on the London boards. The world of stagecraft is particularly important here, as the restored Stuart King Charles II (John Malkovich) had allowed theatres to reopen after their closure during the Puritan-dominated interregnum of 1649-1660. And Wilmot’s relationship with the monarch is an integral element of the story, too, since in this telling the monarch wants the earl, whose talent he respects (even while regretting the nobleman’s disrespectful attitude), to perform two services for him–to write a towering masterpiece for the stage that will impress a visiting French embassy, and to use his eloquence against peers in the House of Lords opposed to the possible succession of the king’s Catholic brother James; and he recalls him from exile in the sticks to do so. Jeffreys also takes the time to show Wilmot interacting with his fellow raffish sophisticates, including George Etherege (Tom Hollander) and Charles Sackville (Johnny Vegas)–as well as a roguish servant, named–suitably, given his master’s proclivities–Alcock (Richard Coyle).
But of course things go dreadfully, in both life and art. Wilmot not only insults the king with his obscene play, earning the royal wrath, but drunkenly kills a man in a brawl and must go off into hiding (assuming the disguise of a traveling Italian player). His actress protégé proves too self-centered to be of any help to him. And he comes down with a terrible wasting disease that returns him to the country care of his mother and wife. But he rouses himself to deliver a clever speech in the House of Lords that turns the tide against a bill that would have excluded James from the succession–though even then he refuses to attribute his triumph to a desire to assist Charles.
Through all Wilmot’s vicissitudes (and extraordinarily long, pretentious speeches) one has to admire the energy of Johnny Depp, who throws himself into the role of the dissolute lord with his usual flair. From his opening address directly to the audience–in which he portentously proclaims “You will not like me!”–through the swagger he still exhibits as the ravaged earl bends the other lords to his political will and delivers a final word of dismissal to the king, Depp relishes the opportunities to pontificate and flounce about. It’s a pity that all the showmanship is in the service of such vacuous material, and that for all his effort he can’t make Wilmot even remotely attractive or sympathetic. The same can be said of Malkovich, made almost unrecognizable by makeup and masking his characteristic vocal inflections, and the various other members of the cast, all of whom also do yeoman service to an inferior script. Still, the film could have been more pleasurable were the behind-the-scenes contributions better. Director Laurence Dunmore presses much too hard, perhaps in an effort to camouflage not only the tattered, clumsy construction of the material (only to accentuate its muddled, disjointed character) but also the rather mangy production design (Ben Van Os), art direction (Fleur Whitlock and Patrick Rolfe) and costumes (Dien van Straalen), while cinematographer Alexander Melman has chosen a dark, murky color palette in tune with the muddy, washed-out environment they create. As if to add aural insult to visual injury, the whole thing is accompanied by one of Michael Nyman’s typically repetitive, maddeningly minimalist scores.
Despite its presumed intent, “The Libertine” really celebrates mindless wantonness rather than freedom. But its messiness, incoherence and generally smug air will certainly encourage your desire to be liberated from the theatre.