A very interesting film that doesn’t quite come off, “The Libertine” looks at the hedonistic life of the Earl of Rochester, a 17th century poet and scandal-maker. Need we add at this point that the role is played by Johnny Depp, with his pirate curls and top-drawer English accent?
Depp’s performance, and the elaborate dialogue by playwright Stephen Jeffreys, make “The Libertine” a watchable and sometimes maniacally funny film. First-time director Laurence Dunmore drowns the movie in a thick fog of brown smoke and gloom, making it into perhaps the dreariest film ever made about a hedonist.
Depp begins his performance by staring out at the audience and announcing, “You will not like me.” Fair enough, although it is possible to enjoy the Earl’s wit and disregard for public favor.
Rochester writes erotic – well, let’s just say dirty – poetry, and conducts himself in such an outrageous manner that King Charles II (John Malkovich) is perpetually putting him in the royal doghouse. The king changes his mind when he suspects Rochester could be his Shakespeare, and might write a play that would bring them both eternal glory.
Meanwhile, Rochester meets a young actress (Samantha Morton, good as always) whose view of the world is as jaundiced as his. Their theatrical experiences are reminiscent of “Stage Beauty,” which was also set during Charles II’s reign.
Rochester has a long-suffering wife, fiercely sketched in a few scenes by Rosamund Pike (much stronger here than as the pretty older sister in “Pride &Prejudice”).
Much of the film is designed to remind us that England’s past was hardly the well-appointed palace of “Masterpiece Theatre.” It’s more like a gross den of drunkenness, disease and foul language, an idea capped by Rochester’s stroll through a St. James Park that looks like the outtakes from a Fellini movie.
A lot of this feels tired, but when the movie concentrates on Rochester’s caustic wit, it scores. The script is full of barbed one-liners, as when Rochester equates the condition of being human with being “no better than a monkey who knows the names of its ancestors.” He knows full well he is “the cynic of this golden age,” and his tragedy is that his own imagination is so much more interesting than real life, thus his glorious boredom at the world.
Malkovich played Rochester in the stage version of “The Libertine,” which must have been a hoot. Depp brings his own debauched air to the role, the only drawback being the sense that he’s been down this road before. Yes, Depp knows excess and dissipation. Good practice for those “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels on the way.
“The Libertine” HH
Watchable: Johnny Depp stars as the debauched, hedonistic Earl of Rochester, a 17th century poet and scandal-maker. The film is gloomy but redeemed by a witty script, with good support from John Malkovich and Samantha Morton.
Rated: R rating is for language
Now showing: Alderwood, Mountlake 9, Meridian, Guild 45th, Woodinville, Cascade Mall