Libertine, The

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 03/21/06 11:41:48

2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Johnny Depp stars in this cinematic piffle as John Wilmot, whom we’re told was a great wit and poet during the reign of King Charles II. From the proof offered by this movie, to be a great poet all you have to be able to do is find rhymes for “bucket” and “Nantucket.”

Very, very few people are going to see “The Libertine” because they are fans of the writing of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, poet/playwright/satirist during the reign of England’s King Charles II. If they do go see it for that reason, they deserve what they get.

I suspect that most of the people in the audience with me went to the film because Johnny Depp stars in it as Wilmot. About 25 percent of them left after a half hour or so. I envied them.

Wilmot opens the film by speaking directly to us, daring us to like him. I have neither read nor seen the play by Jeffrey Stephens on which the movie is based, so I don’t know whether or not this gimmick is used there—I suspect it is—but it seems like a cheap way of introducing a little sympathy into our reaction to the character. Aw, come on—can he really be that bad?

We follow Wilmot’s self-destruction as he thinks he’s skewering the sins and sordidness of his culture when in fact he’s just hoisting himself because he’s the biggest whore-monger and tippler of them all. I suppose a certain amount of pity can be expended on the character as he’s fully aware of his own excesses, but what he calls cynicism I call self-deception, aka, eating one’s cake and having it, too. Sometimes honesty is more a weakness than it is a virtue.

King Charles (a shockingly subdued John Makkovich) summons Wilmot back to London from banishment because he wants this great poet to produce a work for him that will seduce funds from both Parliament and the French Ambassador. Wilmot promises a great play after Charles tells him that he can be Shakespeare to the king’s Elizabeth I, a deliberately creepy comparison.

Okay, here’s the thing about Wilmot—he doesn’t know when to keep silent. If he thinks it, he feels obligated to say it. He informs us frequently that he is an honest man, a Restoration Diogenes and teller of painful truths. I’ll forgive you if you think he’s just an idiot who can’t keep his cynicism to himself.

He sees a young actress, Mrs. Barry, perform (Samantha Morton) and decides to take her under his wing, an odd position even for a relentless horn dog like Wilmot. Much stagy speechifying is delivered as the two of them debate the most effective way of having the lines fall trippingly from the tongue, and yes, it plays as boringly as it sounds.

Wilmot’s grand play is a grander disaster, a pornographic satire on Charles’ personality and reign, and from there the writer sinks lower and lower into disrepute and decay. Ah, but just when you think he will die in despair, he either recants his wickedness and disbelief on his deathbed, or he pulls off one of the great last gasp cons of all time.

We end with Wilmot fading into the darkness, asking us if we came to like him after all.

The answer is not just No, but Hell No. He is, at best, a jerk. We’re told repeatedly what a great writer he was, but we see no evidence of it. He’s supposed to be a witty conversationalist, but again, there’s not much wit in his swearing and self-pity.

Depp adds more cred to my belief that he is the 21st. Century Lon Chaney, painting a rogue’s gallery of maniacs, eccentrics, and all-around losers. “The Libertine” is almost worth watching just to see the actor present Wilmot’s devolution so brilliantly.

But ultimately, the movie is sordid with no relevant purpose. Lit by candlelight, the film is murky, as is the sound. The acting, even from Depp, is frequently over-ripe. I’m going to place “The Libertine” right next to John Wilmot, among histories most deserving obscurities.

The film looks awful, with underlit interiors, and sounds worse. This is one of those movies that tries to make an historical period look real by covering everything in mud and crap with a sort of negative romanticism that is just as false as unspotted lace and highly polished shoes.

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