Let’s allow that any endeavor to film the life and times of the second Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot — Johnny to his friends — will not be easy. The pornographic philosopher and party monster of Restoration England, Rochester was both an agent and a product of his age. Temperamentally, he split the difference between hedonism and misanthropy. The most conspicuous of his habitually conspicuous poems, with titles like “The Dying Lover to His Prick,” “Signior Dildo” and “The Disabled Debauchee,” suggest a rather turgid sort of single-mindedness — indeed, any filmmaker going near the man must be willing to grab hold of the manhood — but there’s also the pliancy of affected cynicism, true self-loathing and several other trace elements of proto-modern disillusionment.
For director Laurence Dunmore, an able practitioner of TV commercials and music videos here making his feature-film debut, the rock-star-of-the-1670s angle must have seemed like a no-brainer. He’s got the champion philanderer, degenerate poet, syphilitic alcoholic, dead at 33. He’s got Johnny Depp. So, we’re done here, right? The rest is just atmosphere.
Well, in Dunmore’s case, lots of atmosphere. Zealously he smears his streets with mud and horseshit, stocks his sooty pubs with overflowing goblets and harlots’ heaving bosoms, and soft-focuses the lot of it with mist and murky brown light. It is something to be able to make a movie theater feel like the inside of a dirty fish tank, but it’s probably not the thing Rochester’s story needs most.
After all, Rochester’s story, or at least the one being told here, is a hellbent, balls-out glam act. Yes, he has a way with the booze and the sex, but his real addiction, he says, is the theater. Hence, presumably, his interest in the headstrong performer Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), whom the Earl decides to mold into “an actress of truth, not a creature of artifice.” It’s the most alive moment in the movie, and judging from the young lady’s subsequent improvement, abbreviated though it is, Johnny has a fine touch (the real credit, of course, belongs to Morton). As it turns out, he is a Method man, dangerously ahead of his time in the director’s art. Later, with Barry firmly established as the toast of London, the Earl inevitably runs afoul of his supportive king, Charles II (a nasally enhanced John Malkovich), with a seditious, phallus-intensive sort of circus show. Elizabeth had her Shakespeare, yes, and Charles has this.
Depp is as right a man for the job as anyone, even when overplaying the drunkenness and, sometimes, the accent. And the deeper structural problem, a misjudged ratio of campy swagger to obdurate ennui, doesn’t seem like his fault so much as a consequence of Dunmore’s unseasoned direction. It dampens whatever tragic resonance he might have intended by making us watch Johnny’s eventual falling apart from the pox. As a colleague of mine so shrewdly put it, “You think, ‘Oh, Johnny Depp in period costume in a movie called The Libertine. Meow!’ But then you see him all broken down and gross and scabby at the end, and it’s like, ‘Ewww.’”
The script shows glimmers of lucidity and even brilliance, but in much longer supply is the vaguely self-pleased precocity with which it studs post-Elizabethan elocution with cries of “cunt” and “fuck.” Although it may imply attribution to a clever, horny high-schooler snickering over his dog-eared Chaucer, The Libertine was in fact adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own play and then apparently workshopped into a pulp of subplots. Was there a version built only from breezy vignettes and then another of careful cause-and-effect narrative architecture? Did someone just shuffle the two drafts together and call the result the shooting script?
Further abstraction occurs in the working over of the movie’s editing, which has left it looking grubby and spent from having tried to please too many overseers. It feels both overlong and incomplete. Malkovich, who has played Rochester onstage, is credited as a producer and reported to have been nudging The Libertine toward the screen for more than a decade. Did he settle for Dunmore just to be done with it, or did he see something promising that the Weinstein brothers later squashed? There may one day emerge a director’s cut, but it will be a tough sell.
It was a tall order to begin with. Dunmore may not have much purchase on the slippery Earl, but solace is available in his words: “Any experiment of interest in your life will be carried out at your own expense.”