Johnny Depp shines in gritty period drama

By |2018-01-16T02:45:28-05:00March 9th, 2006|Entertainment|

“Allow me to be frank: You will not like me,” the 2nd Earl of Rochester matter-of-factly announces in the opening prologue of “The Libertine,” a Restoration-era drama that opens in movie theaters March 10. And he’s probably correct, since his extreme, hedonistic lifestyle might strike you as somewhat offensive. And ultimately, it’s what leads to his spectacular downfall.
But let me be frank as well: Although you might not particularly care for the 2nd Earl of Rochester, you’ll likely be amazed by the nuanced, yet delightfully wicked performance of Johnny Depp who brings the Earl, better known as John Wilmot, to life.
Actually, there’s much to admire about the roguish Wilmot, a true-life 17th century free-spirit who championed personal liberty at a time when church and state controlled your every move. But the times they were a-changing, and he certainly practiced what he preached. Women lusted after him, and men despaired whenever he was in their presence.
A close confidant of England’s King Charles II (delightfully played by John Malkovich), Wilmot has become legendary not only for his bawdy poems and satirical plays, but also for his decadent exploits. He’s a man filled with contradictions: Although he loves his wife, he cheats on her – repeatedly; and while he is celebrated for his intelligence and wit, he is also known for plumbing mankind’s deepest, darkest pleasures. Plus, he’s equally at home with royalty as he is with whores.
After returning to London from his country estate, Wilmot attends a play with fellow libertine playwright George Etherege (Tom Hollander). Despite the lack of obvious talent, boos and rotten fruit tossed her way, actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) catches Wilmot’s eye. So he takes her under his wing with the promise to remake her into the finest actress on the London stage. She’s skeptical, of course, believing that he’s only interested in bedding her – which he is, but he also has a keen eye for raw talent. So she warily agrees to his tutelage, and Wilmot falls in love – which isn’t a good thing, since he’s married to Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful heiress he abducted as an 18-year-old virgin and later married after serving time in the Tower of London for his crime.
In the meantime, the King – also aware of Wilmot’s talents – presses the Earl to take on a greater role in the House of Lords by writing “great speeches people will listen to.” However, Wilmot’s devilish side gets the best of him, the results of which land him in hot water with the crown. (Charles, it seems, doesn’t take kindly to dancing dildos mixed with royal innuendo.)
It’s the beginning of a downward spiral from which Wilmot never recovers.
And it’s not pretty.
First-time director Laurence Dunmore paints Wilmot’s world with dark and muck-encrusted hues. “I wanted to create a film where you could practically smell the atmosphere,” Dunmore said in an interview. And he certainly accomplished that goal.
What Dunmore presents, then, is not an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre,” but rather a fairly honest and often brutal slice of history that’s often ignored – or forgotten – by modern-day storytellers and historians.
However, Dunmore is not always successful with his storytelling. A few scenes are unclear and seem totally unnecessary – such as the buggery scene in St. James Park. And why is Wilmot’s blistery illness never identified? (Experts assume it was syphilis, folks, probably the direct result of his philandering.)

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