The Libertine makes John Wilmot a man who merely wallowed in life’s tragedy
“Allow me to be frank at the commencement,” John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester announces to the camera at the commencement of The Libertine. “You will not like me.” The man understands his audience, if not himself. There is almost nothing likeable about Rochester or anyone else in this film, an adaptation of a stage play by Stephen Jeffreys that portrays Restoration London as a town intent on undoing the Puritan Revolution of 1640. A Stuart monarch has returned to the throne, the theaters have been reopened, and bacchanalia is back in fashion. Though other writers steal his phrases while compensating with hollow praises, Rochester, the wittiest poet at the court of Charles II, has no rival in debauchery. Dead at 33, he was a man who, according to Samuel Johnson, “blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness.”
|Johnny Depp is buff, buffoonish, and dissolute as John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, in Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine.
“I am the cynic of our Golden Age,” Rochester proclaims, disdainful of an age that prizes slackers such as him. Recognizing his subject’s untapped literary talents, the king, mindful of how his royal father lost his head, hopes to use Rochester to consolidate a fragile hold on power. “Elizabeth had her Shakespeare,” says Charles (Malkovich). “You can be mine.” Since Shakespeare was not revered as the supreme poet of his time — and all time — until several decades later, the line is anachronistic. Nevertheless, Charles commissions Rochester to create a theatrical spectacular that will advertise the glory of his reign. Rochester responds perversely, with a pageant of perversity — a scurrilous lampoon of his regal benefactor that begins with a row of wenches thrusting dildos through their legs.The frames of The Libertine are dimly lit, and its take on the world is even darker. Convinced that, “Life has no purpose,” Rochester seeks consolation in booze and sex.
The challenge facing first-time director Laurence Dunmore (his ill-fated second feature was scheduled to take him out of the frying pan and into the Frey — an adaptation of A Million Little Pieces) was to produce art out of material so scabrous it might make an albino blush. Johnny Depp’s Rochester is a sassy scamp who succumbs to the pox and miserable early death, but he lacks the monstrous nuances of a Richard III. What provides interest to his prodigious swigging and swiving is his infatuation with Lizzie Barry (Morton), a woman who resolves to conquer audiences at a time when women were first appearing on the stage. Determined to transform her into a star, Rochester coaches her acting, but Lizzie refuses to become merely a showpiece for her notorious tutor. “I shall be valued for me,” she vows.
Dir. Laurence Dunmore; writ. Stephen Jeffreys, based on his own stage play; feat. Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike (R)
The Libertine fails to value Rochester’s career as a poet who was inspired enough to have left behind a few lines still worth reading. A note he dared post on Charles II’s bedchamber door reads: “Here lies our sovereign lord the king,/ Whose word no man relies on;/ He never says a foolish thing,/ Nor ever does a wise one.” Rochester’s legacy of bawdy verse includes an ode to his flaccid penis; “May’st thou ne’er piss,” he writes, “who didst refuse to spend/ When all my joys did on false thee depend.” But his frequently anthologized poetic meditation “A Satire Against Mankind” bares layers of feeling not evident in Depp’s portrait of the artist as a highborn lowlife.
On his deathbed, the historical Rochester found faith and disavowed his sinful ways and words. But The Libertine offers no comfort for moralists. Except for one good deed, which he claims to perform for selfish ends, its Rochester remains unrepentant through the final, ugly agony. In a posthumous epilogue, he faces the camera and poses the question that launched the story: “Well, do you like me now?” Not even the miscreant’s mother can honestly answer yes. •