The opening text of the film The Libertine tells us that in 17th Century London, theater, the arts, and sex flourish; but by 1625, "the hangovers have commenced." The city itself is hung over: it is a place of rats, ubiquitous sucking mud, public orgies, and the pox. At the theater, a woman in the aisles offers her breast to the patrons like a bag of popcorn.
As if arising from the filth itself, John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, played by Johnny Depp, presides like a lord of Hell. He is a nihilist, a drunk, and a hedonist who hates every minute of it. "Any experiment of interest in life will be at your own expense," he says. His life is just that: one long experiment, testing to see how far he can push the envelope. As we watch Wilmot resolutely throwing his life away, the fascination of the film is in wondering how long he’ll last.
The Libertine is a film adaptation of a play by Stephen Jeffrys. In the stage version, John Malkovich played the Earl. In the film, he plays the role of his impresario, King Charles II. King Charles is among those who make the very bad move of trying to love Wilmot. He sees in Wilmot a literary gift; if only it could be channeled into creativity, and not turned inward, destroying its bearer and harming anyone who gets close. King Charles commissions Wilmot to produce a play, in part for his own aggrandizement, but also to help his friend. The play, of course, is a train wreck.
Apart from the faceless female multitudes that have traveled through Wilmot’s bed are three women of particular influence. The first is Elizabeth, played by Rosamund Pike, who was luminous in the recent Pride and Prejudice , and here has the porcelain beauty of Marisa Berenson in Barry Lyndon . The Earl ravished her, married her, and lost all interest. He dallies with a favorite prostitute, Rose (Trudi Jackson), whose breath he effortlessly quickens. And he falls hard for an intense stage actress, Lizzie Barry, played by the intense film actress Samantha Morton. Experimenting again, Wilmot becomes her mentor and paramour. But Lizzy is smart and selfish enough to slip through his fingers.
When mainstream movies transition from film to digital over the next ten years, a movie like The Libertine will be next to impossible. Digital is sharp and bright; The Libertine has the satisfying murkiness that can only come with film. It’s also sad that the film was released unrated, ruining its chances at the box office; though there’s frank language about sex and genitalia, I didn’t see or hear anything that couldn’t fit under the aegis of an R rating. Instead, it’s more proof of the hypocrisy and stupidity of the MPAA, which has no problem with graphic violence but thinks we need to be protected from sex. The Libertine is a film that seems born to be forgotten, which is a shame, because it’s really very good.
The Libertine is playing at Showplace East, in what is sure to be as brief a run as the Second Earl of Rochester’s. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.