Directed by Laurence Dunmore Written by Stephen Jeffreys
Starring Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich Classification: 14A
John Wilmot may have been the second Earl of Rochester but the guy always ranked first in my undergraduate's secret heart. Yes, when the syllabus turned the clock back to the writings of Restoration England, I read Dryden out of duty and Congreve for the laughs, but it was the irascible Wilmot who gave so many of us what our raging libido really craved - smut. Better yet, witty smut that could be enjoyed between the musty covers of canonized Literature. Vide Signior Dildo. Vide A Ramble in St. James Park. Vide A Satire on Charles II. But don't bother to vide The Libertine, a movie that serves up what its debauched subject would never have countenanced - sanitized smut with a moral attached.
The result is a distressing waste of Johnny Depp. Now this Johnny playing that Johnny should be a marvellous fit, and it is at first, at least until the realization sets in that the script has him all dressed up with no place to go. No place but down, that is, spiralling inexorably into the syphilitic hell that killed Wilmot at the tender age of 33, the booze having ravaged his organs and the pox having gnawed his body right to the nose bone. Apparently, a life of writing verse, emptying bottles and filling wenches will take its toll. Who knew.
Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own play, things start with the stagey device of Depp's Wilmot addressing the camera and waggishly insisting: "Allow me to be frank at the commencement: You will not like me." Oh not likely, we think, and settle back in gleeful anticipation of a role Depp was surely born to play, the Jim Morrison of his time, a free-loving and free-thinking heretic with all his Ps in perfect order - poet, pirate and I'll leave you to guess the third.
Our glee continues on cruise control in the early frames. Director Laurence Dunmore depicts the streets of 1670s London as no more than rivers of mud forded by wooden planks - the city is awash in ooze. Ditto for its morals. With the puritanical Cromwell safely in his grave, the censors have been banished and licentious fun has found a champion under the restored monarchy of Charles II (John Malkovich with a big wig and bigger schnozz).
Of course, in this heady climate, it's Wilmot who rules supreme - drinking with the glitterati and whoring with abandon and versifying in the few hours between, only occasionally quitting the city to recharge at his country estate. There, when the painter Jacob Huysmans arrives to do a marriage portrait, the philandering husband demands a change in its domestic composition, replacing his well-born wife with his pet monkey. Back in town at the theatre, as he's summoned by the King from across the pit, Wilmot's very public reply is a model of unbridled sarcasm: "Well, freeze my piss, damned if the royal finger isn't beckoning me. How exciting." Clearly, this is not a libertine to curry favour.
But he is a libertine to fall in love and here's where matters go awry. The plot's embroidered mix of fact and fancy turns a bit too fanciful when, in the same playhouse, Wilmot meets and tumbles hard for the actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). He tutors her in the thespian craft, refines her Ophelia, and elevates her into a symbol of transcendent art: "I want to feel in the theatre what I can't in life." In return, the symbol offers up her flesh but not her spirit. Seems Lizzy is a budding feminist determined to safeguard her independence, a stand that appears to rob Wilmot of his protective irony and plunge him into an enduring existential crisis.
If that bit of speculation is dubious, it's also all we get - this is the narrative's sole crisis, the theme's singular moral, and the rest is just a tumble through the void. So, as our anti-hero becomes ever more physically wasted, the script seems to dissolve right along with him. Wilmot once wrote a poem (applauded even by an otherwise disapproving Samuel Johnson) called simply Upon Nothing - it's as if the picture took that title far too much to heart.
Somewhere during this empty last act, during his tedious descent into noselessness, Wilmot shrugs at his wife's fervid plea that he reform his drunken ways, and then makes this leap into the aphoristic darkness: "Life is not a succession of urgent nows, it is a listless trickle of why-should-I's." The movie has potential, the star has brightness, but sadly, life's trickle of why-should-I's has just swollen - add to it the prospect of seeing The Libertine.