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The Libertine
2006 - R - 112 Mins.
Director: Laurence Dunmore
Producer: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith
Written By: Stephen Jeffreys
Starring: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike
Review by: Chris Beaumont
Official Site:

Wilmot and his wife pose for a painting as Wilmot contemplates a monkey.
"You will not like me now, and you will like me a good deal less as we go on."

'The Libertine' was made back in 2004. As to the reasons why it has taken the film so long to make its way into theaters they are a mystery to me. What I can say is that I am glad it finally has. It moves with a self assured swagger and confidence that borders on egotism. A slow, deliberate pace sets the stage for this tale of depravity and the downward spiral of its subject.

"The Libertine" is an entertaining look at the life of the Second Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot, who was known for his friendship with King Charles II, as well as for his womanizing and drinking, and to an extent, for his writing. The sad life and times captured in his story is at turns tragic and comic.

Johnny Depp stars as Wilmot, delivering another in a long line of excellent performances. He brings a full range of emotion to a character with rather reprehensible proclivities, yet is able at various points to to generate sympathy for the man. Those moments don't last long as he inevitably does something to bring the reality of his nature crashing down on your defeated expectations.

Wilmot was a man possessed of incredible intelligence, yet drawn self destructively to the darker impulses of life. Rather than resist, he sought them out, using them as a guantlet through which he would focus his creative urges. He ultimately wrote perverse prose and plays filled with promiscuous debased characters, using these baser elements of human activity to veil his criticism of society and the monarchy. The Libertine follows the rise and fall, and rise and fall of his creative and personal life.

Recently returned from exile in the country, Wilmot brings his wife to London, where he quickly falls back into excessive drinking with his fellow writers and a habit of spending nights at the local bordello. Soon enough, however, two events occur which will have a profound affect on his future. First, he is charged with writing a play for the King, to be staged as entertainment for visiting French royalty. The second is the appearance of an actress, Elizabeth Barry, who is booed off the stage during a performance. Wilmot sees in her, an opportunity to redeem himself, and vows to teach her to be a better actress. This comes, of course, at the expense of his wife.

The combination of the approaching deadline for delivery of the play and his entanglement with the actress combine to hasten his decline into drink and sexual depravity. He writes a play which is equal parts a celebration of carnal pursuits and indictment of the monarchy. This doesn't go over well with King Charles II, who halts the play and sends Wilmot into exile once again. Meanwhile, his fascination with Elizabeth devolves into unrequited obsession, as it becomes clear that she has used him to further career, and doesn't hesitate for a moment to distance herself from him when he falls out of favor.

The Libertine is a dirty picture. I'm not referring to the content, although that is an apt description of a good portion. I am speaking of the visual motif of the movie itself, mud and dirt abound in the images slung at the screen. This is no technicolor fantasy -- everything is in shades of earthen brown. Add to the monochromatic palette, a grainy film texture and you get an interesting look that differentiates it from everything else at the local cineplex. The Cinematography sort of reminded me of Guy Maddin's work, where he tries to emulate the look of prior cinematic eras (see The Saddest Music in the World, where he vamps on films of the silent era). Director Laurence Dunmore and cinematographer Alexander Melman's work here is not quite as extreme, but it is in the same vein, artistically, and the result makes the film stand out visually.

The screenplay was written by Stephen Jeffreys, based on his play. It was originally staged in London in 1994, then made its way to the Chicago theater circuit, where theatrical heavyweight John Malkovich took the lead. Here, Malkovich moves to the role of King Charles II. Jeffreys has written a self assured screenplay, allowing the attitudes of his characters to flow unrestrained through their dialogue. It may not be the most well-rounded writing, but it has an attitude that rips through all pretense to get to the core of the people he is memorializing in a script that is at turns tragically dramatic and laugh out loud funny. Jeffry's script finds a perfect balance in the way it is capable of making you feel for the characters one moment, and making you laugh out loud at the portrayal of their wilder antics the next.

The cast does an excellent job at making these historical figures interesting and relevant characters that you want to watch. Leading the cast is the brilliant Johnny Depp, who puts on an absolute acting clinic. Using subtlety and nuance in a role that could easily be overpowered by its inherent flamboyance , Depp shows how something as small as a facial tic can breath life into a character. His performance here is a tour-de-force that is something to behold indeed. Despite the gravity he generates, Depp is also a generous actor, simultaneously commanding your attention and yet capable of turning on a dime when the plot is best served through restraint. His interplay with Samantha Morton's Elizabeth Barry is a case in point. Their interactions becoming more and more pointed as her confidence grows and his emotions change. Morton is fun to watch, as her character grows and matures before our eyes. John Malkovich is, well, John Malkovich as the King of England. Rounding out the main characters is Rosamund Pike who is effective as Wilmot's long suffering wife.

Bottom line -- "The Libertine" is an intriguing and challenging film that will not appeal to everyone, as proven by the walkouts during the screening I attended. Depp gives a fascinating performance, and proves his willingness to explore and portray the extremeties of the human condition. His ability to take such an unsavory character and walk him along the tightrope between the repulsive and alluring, elevates the film from take it or leave it arthouse fare, into the realm of substantive cinematic achievement.

Movie Guru Rating
Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental. Entertaining and well crafted.  May not be worth the price of a theater ticket, but a solid rental.
  3.5 out of 5 stars

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