- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

“The Libertine” shatters the notion that period pieces must be decorous.

Johnny Depp’s John Wilmot, the real life Earl of Rochester, dares us to hate him for bedding and boozing with abandon.

It’s a million miles from those dignified Merchant-Ivory epics where a casual touch is sometimes all we get between the romantic leads.

After an hour or so of “The Libertine,” we could use a good shower. Instead, the film follows the grave decline of Wilmot’s health, and as his condition worsens, so, too, does the film. What survives intact is Mr. Depp’s stunning performance, a kaleidoscope of lust and self-aggrandizement.

First-time director Laurence Dunmore introduces us to Wilmot in dramatic fashion. He’s staring straight at us, making no apologies for his debauched lifestyle.

His social rank, combined with ties to King Charles II (John Malkovich, exuding power while exercising actorly restraint from beneath a prosthetic nose), give him ample license to feed his urges.

That means plenty of time away from his devoted wife (Rosamund Pike) and the ability to hire or fire help on a whim. Life is just one opportunity for one social experiment after another, as he sees it, but every act carries a price.

More on that later.

His will to dissipation falters when he meets a struggling actress named Lizzie (Samantha Morton, who’s making a career out of underrated excellence). She’s among the first women thespians — up until then, men played both the male and female roles.

John is moved by the talent he sees within her as well as how she refuses the obligatory bow when a crowd bombards her with fruit. He decides to take her under his wing, and she grudgingly accepts.

An early, revealing conversation between them becomes a dazzling duet of dialogue and acting chops. He can’t feel emotion without the help of surrogates, he confesses, while she admits to craving adoration from her audiences.

Needless to say they fall in love, or as close to love as John can muster.

While Lizzie’s stage work blossoms under his tutelage, John sets about writing a play supposedly to honor King Charles II. What emerges from his imagination is more pornography than paean, sealing his fate with the government.

It’s here where John’s reckless lifestyle catches up to him. His final days are consumed with a deadly case of syphilis, and Mr. Depp does a heroic job acting around both the scabby makeup and a story that grows as feeble as his character.

Stephen Jeffreys’ script, based on his stage play, cheekily blends modern-sounding profanity with period chatter, a feat carried off exquisitely by all involved. It’s a shame the story rolls out in such an episodic, disconnected form, as if John Wilmot himself were writing it during a fevered creative spell.

“The Libertine’s” John Wilmot might get lost in the shadow of Mr. Depp’s better hyped characters such as Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow, but the performance deserves to be more than a footnote to the actor’s career.


TITLE: “The Libertine”

RATING: R (Nudity, sexual situations, adult language and disturbing imagery)

CREDITS: Directed by Laurence Dunmore. Written by Stephen Jeffreys, based on his stage play. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.thelibertine-movie.com/


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