Genius Products // 2005 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Neal Masri (Retired) // July 4th, 2006
He didn't resist temptation. He pursued it.
Libertine -- a dissolute person; usually a man who is morally unrestrained.
My words cannot describe the character of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, any better than Princeton Lexical Database, quoted above. All I can add is that if you imagine Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl as a sex addict, you'll have an idea of what we're dealing with here. Wilmot is a nobleman and playwright returning to London after being briefly exiled by King Charles II.
John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands), is a nobleman returning to London after being briefly exiled by King Charles II. He is a celebrated writer and satyr of seventeenth-century London. He is a lover of the theater as well as a lover of anything with a pulse. He is a friend of King Charles II (John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich) whose rule has ushered in a new period of tolerance after years of repressive Puritan rule. During this period the arts, sciences, and sexual permissiveness flourish.
Wilmot attends a play and is smitten with actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton, Minority Report). After Barry flops onstage, Wilmot takes her under his wing. In the beginning their relationship is platonic as Wilmot becomes her mentor and acting coach. Wilmot, however, can only fight his true nature for so long and you can imagine where things go from there.
Charles II commissions a play from Wilmot. What he eventually produces is so scandalous that it causes an international incident when attended by a visiting French dignitary. (As an aside, a vintage copy of Wilmot's play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery was recently auctioned off by Sotheby's as one of the first pornographic works ever performed.) In the aftermath of the performance, Wilmot goes into hiding fearing retribution from the King. He takes to wearing a silver nose to hide the ravages that syphilis has visited upon his body. As he becomes more physically disabled, Wilmot's life takes some surprising turns.
You have to hand it to Johnny Depp. He is constantly taking risky and idiosyncratic parts. I imagine that, in his position, it would be just as easy to take the Ben Affleck route and chase the romantic comedy/action blockbuster paycheck. With the exception of the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Depp generally sticks to the road less traveled. Depp's portrayal of Wilmot is vaguely familiar and has more than a few of the self-consciously quirky traits that mark most of his roles. That said, he is one actor who is never boring.
The character of Wilmot and the film are both obsessed with sex. However, sex is presented in a rote rather than titillating fashion here. I think this accurately reflects Wilmot's point of view. Sex for him is a compulsion that must be fed. Joyless and empty, sex is merely something Wilmot needs to do in order to function -- the way most people need oxygen. When explaining his calling as a playwright, Wilmot says, "I wish to be moved. I cannot feel in life. I must have others do it for me here in the theater."
This curious sense of detachment applies to the movie as well. First-time director Laurence Dunmore creates a decidedly gloomy and depressing atmosphere, peopled with a gloomy group of characters. I'm not one who needs for all the characters in a movie to be likable, but I do need to find something relatable or noticeably real about them. With the notable exception of Wilmot, that relatable quality is absent.
The highly stylized color palette of The Libertine makes picture quality difficult to judge. The England portrayed here is all mud and earth tones. The image has an almost sepia look that mutes all primary colors. An obviously intentional graininess is also present. I would guess that this image accurately reflects the filmmakers' intentions. Unfortunately, audio is as muddy as rain-soaked London in a few spots. Music comes through well but dialogue is a bit hard to make out at times.
Director Laurence Dunmore's commentary focuses mainly on the artistic decisions that went into making the film. He speaks a great deal about character motivations and the choices made in the screenplay. The commentary is well done and provides a good deal of information. Dunmore heaps praise upon Johnny Depp and provides a lot of insight into the creation of the Wilmot character. All in all, this is a good commentary with very few gaps of silence.
Deleted scenes and a making-of piece round out the extras. Eight deleted scenes can be played with or without director commentary. Several of the scenes are actually quite good and would have added to the film in my opinion. An extended finale is especially well done and is worth a look. A featurette called Capturing The Libertine is also included. It focuses on the history of John Wilmot and has interviews with all the film's principals. It is an enlightening piece for anyone wishing to know more about this production.
I still find myself considering the irony of the first line of the film: "You will not like me." In the end, I did like John Wilmot, just not much else about the The Libertine. Roger Ebert has said that it is possible to admire a film but not like it. That mixed feeling is the quandary I find myself in here. Depp's performance is interesting and, at times, arresting (as is the character of John Wilmot). Both Depp and Wilmot deserve better than this movie delivers.
The atmospheric visuals make this film a unique viewing experience. Also, seeing two consummate actors like Malkovich and Depp share the screen is a treat. The combination of Depp's slithery sexuality and Malkovich's fey yet menacing deameanor is interesting. I wish the visuals and these two great performers were part of a more appealing movie.
I wanted to like The Libertine as much as I enjoyed Johnny Depp's performance. The film is literate and smart, but fails to engage. The story of John Wilmot's life should be both more fun and more tragic than it is portrayed here.
The Libertine is found guilty. Johnny Depp, however, is released on his own recognizance and is free to pursue other oddball roles.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Making-Of Documentary
* Director Commentary
* Theatrical Trailer