From the outset, “The Libertine” throws down the gauntlet, with Johnny Depp’s Earl of Rochester promising the audience, “You will not like me.” After almost two hours watching the 17th-century poetaster ruin himself with booze, brawling, shagging and epic-scale petulance, no one can say they weren’t warned. Starting out seductive but ending up tiresome, debuting director Laurence Dunmore’s pic is an honorable misfire, with pockmarks from its troubled gestation and recutting following work-in-progress screenings at 2004’s Toronto fest. Depp’s fans could generate some initial B.O., but mixed word-of-mouth may send it into quick decline.
Episodic script by Stephen Jeffreys, adapting his own legiter which opened in 1994 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, only partly rises to the challenge of filleting a story out of the sordid and often strange adventures of the second Earl of Rochester, aka John Wilmot. Real-life figure, who died in 1680 at age 33 from a surfeit of drink and syphilis, was notorious for his debauchery.
Wilmot was also bisexual — a preference only hinted at in the film. In its rush to establish Wilmot’s street cred as a bourgeois-baiting outlaw, pic also dodges the fact that, earlier in his career, he was feted a hero for his courage at sea against the Dutch.
Film opens with some obligatory captions giving background, and a to-camera introduction by Wilmot (Depp) himself which, with carefree abandon, mixes 17th-century diction with contempo slang. (Wilmot warns the ladies that “he’s up for it, all the time.”) Plot then plunges into the biography, starting ca. 1678.
Wilmot is summoned back to London from countryside exile in Oxfordshire by King Charles II (John Malkovich, who played Wilmot on stage in the late ’90s). Seems the king misses his favorite court wit and has hopes Wilmot will pen something to celebrate his liberal reign, which has seen theaters reopen after the Puritan shutdown.
Once in London, Wilmot falls back in with the swinging fast set, including waspish, wannabe playwright Sir George Etherege (Tom Hollander) and professional man of jest and leisure Charles Sackville (Johnny Vegas). The trio and their hangers-on resume their hard-drinking and whoring ways.
Inescapably echoing “Stage Beauty,” even though “Libertine” was written first, pic’s midsection sees Wilmot becoming obsessed with a makeover on his new protege, actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). He turns her into the toast of the town by teaching her (anachronistically) to act with real, Method feeling instead of the declamatory style of the time.
Barry soon becomes Wilmot’s mistress as well — the third lover, if not love, in his life, along with prostitute Jane (Kelly Reilly) and his wife, Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike).
With so many relationships and supporting turns to cram in, as well as hefty doses of politicking as the king parries with Parliament, pic starts to become a succession of tableaus, alternating scenes of debauchery and dramatics. Worse, it becomes difficult to feel much sympathy for the increasingly manipulative Wilmot, who at the, uh, climax not so much bites but more devours whole the hand that feeds him. He stages an elaborate legit lampoon of the king, complete with giant dildos, characters called “Clitoris,” and much mockery of his majesty’s potency.
Script tends to assert rather than demonstrate that Wilmot was a significant poet. (Contempo scholars don’t rate his funny but filthy output that high, apart from his graceful, more serious “A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind.”) As a result, this puts the onus on Depp to keep viewers on his character’s side.
Depp’s solution is to camp it up royally, playing the part with a satanic twinkle in his eye and a swagger in his step, like some Restoration rock star. Performance is almost a Mick Jagger-ish companion piece to his Keith Richards-like one in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” As usual, Depp gets the accent note-perfect and has star wattage to burn, but the character remains a cipher right up to the sordid, drawn-out ending.
Supporting ensemble does good-to-excellent work, with Malkovich atypically underplaying from under his prosthetic nose and poodle wig. Other standouts include Morton and Pike, as two of the women in Wilmot’s life, and consistently eye-catching character actor Hollander (the vicar in “Pride & Prejudice”).
British helmer Dunmore, who started off in advertising, has a shrewd, confident touch with the big, ensemble set pieces. But he can’t quite make the whole cohere and lets key lines of dialogue get lost in the tumult of the sound mix.
Pic famously became a fiasco when changes to U.K. tax laws led to production coin evaporating just prior to shooting. This may explain its studio-bound look and Alexander Melman’s crepuscular lensing, perhaps crafted to disguise a smaller budget.
Whatever the case, film is so murky and grainy, the action seems to be unfolding in a sooty London fog of major proportions, which further heightens the tale’s seedy atmosphere. Craft contributions from costume designer Dien van Straalen and hair/make-up man Peter Owen also favor distressed textures. Sets and locations are so thick with period mud that auds may feel like a shower on the way out.