Libertine, The (2005): Johnny Depp as Scandalous Poet

With yet another bold, if ultimately charmless, performance, Johnny Depp makes a valiant effort to hold together his episodic period drama, The Libertine. But, alas, the film is disappointing, lacking narrative coherence, dramatic focus, and artistic shape.

The seventeenth-century saga centers on the controversial figure of the second Earl of Rochester, aka John Wilmot, the scandalous poet who ruined himself with booze, brawling, whoring, and other excesses.

While The Libertine begins well, with a number of seductive scenes, it devolves with increasingly diminishing returns until it almost comes to a halt due to its tiresome, near-claustrophobic nature.

I haven’t seen Stephen Jeffries’ play on which the movie is based, and I am not familiar with the troubled work-in-progress that was shown in Toronto Festival last year. However, judging by its own merits, theĀ  whole year spent on post-production with major cuts and rearrangements has not helped much.

Both thematically and artistically, The Libertine suffers from similar problems that inflicted Philip Kaufman’s Quills, about the irrepressible Marquis de Sade (excessively acted by Geoffrey Rush), and Stage Beauty, with Billy Crudup, as Edward Ned Kynaston, the most successful cross-dressing actor in seventeenth-century England. All three movies deal with rebellious heroes who break taboos in their creative work and personal conduct, while living in rigid and conservative societies.

Early on, addressing the camera directly, the infamous Earl of Rochester promises the audience, “You will not like me.” In what becomes self-fulfilling prophecy, screenwriter Jeffries and helmer Laurence Dunmore have made a movie that it’s not easy to like or even appreciate. It would be too easy to say that The Libertine is a misfire due to he lack of experience of Dunmore, who here makes his directorial debut. Nonetheless, the movie is hampered by all kinds of structural and stylistic problems. The Libertine comes across as a sordid and dreary experience, as if the main goal is to shock viewers with its seedy view of Swinging London circa the 1660s.

Jeffries has adapted to the big screen his own play, which premiered in 1994 at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Two years later, Malkovich staged the work and played the lead of John Wilmot at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Malkovich is the producer of this screen version, in which he assumes the mantle of King Charles II.

The Libertine could have been subtitled, The adventures of the second Earl of Rochester, since it’s inspired by the life of John Wilmot, who was notorious for his debauchery and died in 1680 at age 33 from booze and syphilis.

Dunmore’s movie is compromised by what its selects as well what it omits from Wilmot’s real-life. For example, there are only hints to Wilmot’s bisexuality and homoeroticism, which is a peculiar neglect in our liberal times. Moreover, the film never bothers to establish how good a writer Wilmot was. Though there is no consensus, unlike the Marquis de Sade, contemporary scholars don’t rank Wilmot’s literary output high, apart from a few pieces such as “A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind.” Mostly, the filmmakers seem content to depict Wilmot as an outlaw, opting for an approach that while ambiguous tilts toward glamorizing him as a dandy rebel.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue is anachronistic, blending period lingo with contemporary slang. In dialogue, occasionally there are nods to the equally decadent Dangerous Liaisons, in which Malkovich played the lead, as when Wilmot tells women, “I’m up for it, all the time.”

The story begins in 1675, when Wilmot is called back to London from exile in Oxfordshire by King Charles II (Malkovich). Noting that he has missed his favorite court wit, the benevolent King asks Wilmot to write a piece to commemorate his liberal reign, during which theaters were reopened after the Puritan shutdown. The production is also meant to help forge economic alliances with the French.

Once in London, Wilmot falls back in with the city’s swinging jet set, including the aspiring playwright Sir George Etherege (Tom Hollander) and the man of jest and leisure Charles Sackville (Johnny Vegas), and the trio mostly engages in hard-drinking, whoring, and mistreating women.

The film’s central chapters examine Wilmot’s obsession to make over a new protege, actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), and transform her into the toast of London’s theater world by teaching her new, more emotional methods of acting, instead of the then dominant declamatory style. In no time, Barry becomes Wilmot’s mistress, joining the company of another proststitute Jane (Kelly Reilly) and Wilmot’s own wife, Elizabeth Malet (the gifted Rosamund Pike, who can be seen in Pride and Prejudice).

Unfortunately, the scenes that depict Wilmot’s slavish devotion to the unskilled actress and his cruel mistreatment of his wife are too conventional. There may be too many relationships, and too many political intrigues, for one movie to cover in depth. Marred by a disjointed structure, the tale unfolds as a series of tableaus, not all of which vivant. With such diffuse narrative, which rambles from sequence to sequence, it’s almost impossible to get involved with, or feel empathy, for Wilmot.

Well-cast, with an impressive, if not entirely consistent, accent, Depp brings a campy sensibility of the kind he used in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” playing the role with a devilish twinkle in his alert eyes and swagger in his dynamic movements. It’s not Depp’s fault that at the end his character remains a cipher. It’s always a bad sign when fact-inspired dramas leave viewers with such distaste that they don’t wish to know more about the actual characters when the movie is over.

The supporting cast is good. Rather atypically, Malkovich underplays the King, which is a remarkable feat considering the prosthetic nose, poodle wig, and mustache he sports. Both Morton and Pike, as two of the women in Wilmot’s life, acquit themselves with honorable turns, though Morton has little screen time and is underused.

British helmer Dunmore, who started off in advertising (he worked for the Ridley brothers in UK), lacks the knowledge of how to stage set pieces. This is most evident in what’s meant to be the most shocking piece, when Wilmot stages an elaborate lampoon of the king, with giant dildos, characters called “Clitoris,” and mockery of the king’s potency. Like most first-timers, he shows problems with pacing and rhythm, which results in a shapeless picture.

Due to budgetary limitations, The Libertine has a studio-bound look. The craftsmen who worked on the design have chosen a murky and grainy style, and the sets accentuate the period’s filth and grime and London’s seedy atmosphere. In the name of brutal realism, Alexander Melman’s cinematography goes against the grain of the Merchant Ivory prettified and stately style, bathing the film in candlelight, fog and smoke. This approach results in a visually unappealing production, accompanied by Michael Nyman’s score, which is less haunting than aggressively insistent.

The Weinstein Company, the picture’s American distributor, has decided to release the film non-rated, since the MPAA had slapped it with NC-17 due to its sexually forthright manner, filthy dialogue, and foul language. (Wilmot’s servant is named Cock)

Ultimately, The Libertine seems to be a movie about a cynically slimy drunkard, whose sexual compulsion and debauchery had lent him the reputation of a rogue, and about Johnny Depp in a deliciously wicked performance.

Adding another eccentric panel to an already memorable gallery, Depp infuses the self-absorbed, narcissistic Wilmot with nasty elegance and tragic painfulness, particularly at the end, when his defiant acts precipitate rapid decline and banishment.