Dir. Laurence Dunmore, 2004, UK, 114 mins
Cast: Johnny Depp, John Malkovich, Samantha Morton, Rosamund Pike
The Earl of Rochester, or Johnny to his mates, drank and shagged his way through his short life during Charles II’s 17th century reign known as the Restoration. As England rose from the dark days of the Middle Ages a new era of cultural development was emerging and Rochester took full advantage of the golden age of sexual promiscuity. The wanton Earl’s debauched, lust for life exploits draws a parallel with star Johnny Depp’s own wild days when his early cult status was growing but, perhaps with River Phoenix’s untimely death outside Depp’s Viper Room nightclub a sobering milestone, The Libertine shows the highs and lows of what such excess does to a man’s body and soul.
The film follows the exiled Rochester as he’s allowed back to the King’s fold and return to London where the prodigal poet is to pen a great work that will impress foreign dignitaries. As his wife Elizabeth Malet (Pike) fears Johnny is soon drawn back to what he himself admits is his drug, the theatre. Once again carousing with his loutish drinking buddies, including an unashamed Johnny Vegas, Rochester’s intoxication is furthered when he spies struggling actress Elizabeth Barry (Morton) who he wagers can be turned into a great star.
Always chasing that illusive moment or fleeting romance Rochester’s love of the theatre feeds his addiction for precious, complete moments that are so unlike real life, they produce a feeling without the consequence. You get the suspicion that his abduction of a young Malet and spending years locked in the Tower before marrying her was done for the outrageous yarn that could be told in later years when the play of his life was produced. Teetering on the cusp of genius Rochester never allows his own talent a chance and instead his contempt for a world where one decision seems indistinguishable from another pushes him to rely on baser instincts. In his last great moment in the limelight the original rebel without a cause stages his masterpiece; all giant phalluses and dildos. It’s a final mockery that pushes Malkovich’s terse King to initiate the rascal’s downfall.
Told in gruesome detail, Rochester’s demise from inevitable syphilis moves The Libertine from swirling period booze-up into assured biopic territory where Depp excels. Despite now being in his 40s, the actor astounds with another timeless performance, chewing on the explicit yet weighty dialogue with a snarling grin, committing to the ages another great cinema anti-hero, Mr Darcy he is not. For sceptics who thought a period film was all starched corsets and giggles Dunmore has set about repainting expectations with a grubby tapestry, a barely visible world of murky decadence. Boozily the camera drifts alongside Rochester, drifting in and out of focus, chasing a staggering Ichabod Crane as though lead by the ghost of Hunter S Thompson on the pub crawl to end all pub crawls.
For a UK film that almost didn’t see the light of day thanks to tax hikes scuppering the domestic industry The Libertine does a gleeful job of sticking two fingers up at the establishment by simply getting a release. It’s swaggering rock and roll at heart, a pertinent tale nowadays with every upstart after their fifteen minutes, but is mindful to the consequences of pushing indulgence too far. Kids, try not to like the Earl of Rochester too much.