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The Libertine

L-R: Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike) and John Wilmot (Johnny Depp). ©2005, The Weinstein Co.

“The Libertine” opens with John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), the Second Earl of Rochester, introducing us to his story. The first image that pops up into my mind is Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan in David Lynch’s horrendously-mangled adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” However, I wouldn’t call this film an epic.

“Gentlemen, do not despair,” Rochester reassures us before we have reason to care for a reassurance delivered by him. Blah blah… something something… “I do not want you to like me.” No, really, I couldn’t quite follow what he was saying because he was mumbling, like a poorly mimeographed page of script, an affectation of Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” half-way between Eton and Cockney enunciation. I can follow garbled dialogue when it’s in context, so that begs, in my mind, the question as to why this introduction was necessary. Well, it pitches itself as a method to establish that we bear in mind that Rochester is not a likeable character. But really, I think it’s a lousy attempt at pre-empting the fact that you’re going to hate this movie, independently of Rochester’s Treadwellian (i.e., self-destructive) personality.

Rochester’s story of debauchery falls into center on his relationship with Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). She aspires to be a great stage actress, but her acting is atrocious. Rochester will, of course, school her in the thespian art. Lizzie suspects he is there for, well, what he’s usually in the presence of a woman. “I believe men are hurdles to be overcome,” she observes. Retorts the lecherous teacher, “I think I can make you an actor of truth and not a creature of artifice.” But can they together make this film anything other than artifice?

Lizzie begins to believe that her mentor does possess valid desires and motivations, as much as she believes she does. He wants Lizzie how to manifest her passions but doesn’t understand how to manifest them himself. Rochester forces her to repeat a scene nearly to her breaking point. By opening night, her performance is exceptional—a standing ovation.

In a manner that seems inspired loosely by Forman’s “Amadeus,” a component of the plot involves the commissioning of a play from Rochester by King Charles II (John Malkovich). Rochester’s writing drags on, and eventually Charles gets impatient. When the play finally is staged, it’s loaded with debauchery and insult aimed at Charles. Outraged, the king shuts down the production immediately.

Rochester goes into exile, stages plays against the king… blah blah, etc. etc. I’m having the worst trouble trying to write a commentary of this film and all I’ve ended up doing is regurgitating the events in a rather matter-of-fact way. But that is precisely how this film operates. It bores you to death with its dutiful recital of scene after scene, and there’s only one slight bit of humor (involving the name of Richard Coyle’s character), and when I heard it, my reaction was no different than to any miserable scene of people being miserable, living, loving and dying miserably.

Did I mention Rochester has a wife? The film barely mentions it. In fact, Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike) is briefly introduced and then disappears for a good two-thirds of the film. This is so she’s forgotten long enough that her oddly-sympathetic and sudden re-emergence at Rochester’s side—his health failing—has an inflated dramatic effect on the viewer more than it should, especially when you’re given little reason to believe she’d ever come back to this pariah. She doesn’t need to remain off-camera for us to know she’s away from Rochester, but to cut back every now and then to her parallel character development would mean sacrificing the artificial catharsis of her return.

What jarred me back into interest—albeit briefly—was not a good scene, but instead an atrocious scene. When a diseased Rochester (looking like a post-op Michael Jackson with a bad case of hives) addresses the House of Lords, he paces a circuit around the room, lurching forward into the camera. Every now and then, as Depp stumbles too close to the lens, the camera operator backs up the camera several awkward and jerky steps. Then Depp continues, barrels forth again, camera backs up again, and so on… It’s extraordinarily distracting, pretentious and entirely missing the point. If we’re meant to get a sense of the disorientation Rochester feels as he’s slipping into oblivion, of what use is it to us to see a clumsily-executed handheld shot that distracts us from what Rochester’s saying? If it were a tracking shot on rails with a steady backward motion instead of the lurching push in-pull out between actor and the camera, Depp’s discombobulated lurching would be more than sufficient to convey disorentation. It seems here that the director tried to stuff just one more innuendo into what was already a masturbatory mess of a film.

The director has overwrought the dank and depressing mood to the point of fetishistic fixation such that one has no mental capacity (or will) left to follow the story, if there is one. One can’t appreciate Depp’s skill as an actor when it’s wasted on such self-indulgent garbage as this, and one doesn’t have to. Stumble away from this film as quickly as possible.

The Libertine • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 130 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality including dialogue, violence and language. • Distributed by The Weinstein Company

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