The Libertine

The Libertine


Reviewed by: Chris

What images are conjured up by the title. Especially when we know in advance the lead is to be played by the handsome Johnny Depp. Perhaps a likeable rake, a dissolute, even fashionable, but very colourful, icon of male supremacy - to be forgiven by female fans if they can watch from the safety of a cinema seat.

The reality is a disturbingly different film, dark and sombre, a 17th century candle-lit England, a portrait of the poet and debauchee John Wilmot, and one that ultimately bows out to a feminist heroine in the form of the actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton).

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In an opening prologue, Wilmot tells the audience they will not like him. With the gusto characteristic of Depp, he throws himself into this melodramatic character in a way that is markedly different from his many half-serious, half-comic roles. As if to win his wager, he is out to repulse us, but not just with licentious excess: the tragedy of Wilmot is that he possesses genius, but is unable to use it to furnish his own fulfilment. He is a tragic character, no Don Juan that follows a promiscuous lifestyle as a summum bonum, but a man of inner greatness, for whom the outer world is so boring that he loses himself in drink and sexual excess and eventually alienates those around him.

"I have to speak my mind," he says, "for it is always more interesting than what is going on around me."

As the 2nd Earl of Rochester, Wilmot is in and out of favour at the court of Charles II (John Malkovitch) and frequently upsets his lovely wife (Rosamund Pike) with his whoring and drinking. But his wife's jealousy is eventually piqued, not so much by the loose women or the alehouse, but by Wilmot's love of the theatre - especially in the form of prostitute-destined-for-greatness, Elizabeth Barry. At a time before the emancipation of women, when the stage had been the sole province of men, Barry is determined to make it as an actress. She is hobbled by inexperience and a lowly position, but Wilmot takes her under his patronage and tutelage. Wary of the deal, Barry resists, saying she wants to rise by her own efforts, not so he can take the credit. He asks her what drives her and her response - passion for theatre, desire to thrill and move an audience - is one that Wilmot identifies with, for he is tired of the lukewarm pastiches that trivialise even noble writing.

Unfortunately for Wilmot, his own greatness is on the ebb. It was said of him that he was, "a man whom the muses were fond to inspire, but ashamed to avow." His taunting of the king and a scurrilous lampoon of Charles II in front of the French ambassador helps to seal his fate.

Morton continues to show her acting talents with a substantial - if not substantial enough - role and Malkovitch is an adequate counter balance to the very considerable presence of Depp. The script (based on an earlier play, starring Malkovitch, and written by the playwright Stephen Jeffreys) sparkles with wit and if at times the direction is a little uneven, or turgid, it is an admirable and important debut for Laurence Dunmore. The desaturated colours and muddy, rain sodden English countryside creates an air of foreboding entirely appropriate for a work that is more serious than its title suggests.

Intellectually, we are treated to the drollness and intelligence of Wilmot, but realise he is a "locked in," isolated character, a loner and barely appreciated trailblazer (in some respects like Marlon Brando, to whose memory, among others, the film is dedicated). Also, we see the folly and weakness of his philosophy.

Wilmot wrote:

"Consider real Honour then, You'll find hers cannot be the same; 'Tis noble confidence in men, In women, mean, mistrustful shame."

Yet, it was the honour of the lowly Elizabeth Barry that ultimately inspired him and, somehow, remained ever out of reach.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2005
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The tragic, promiscuous, defiant world of a 17th century philandering philosopher earl.
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Read more The Libertine reviews:

Josh Morrall **

Director: Laurence Dunmore

Writer: Stephen Jeffreys, based on the play by Stephen Jeffreys

Starring: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Paul Ritter, Stanley Townsend, Francesca Annis, Rosamund Pike, Johnny Vegas, Richard Coyle, Hugh Sachs

Year: 2004

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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