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The Libertine

The Libertine (2004) is the sort of movie you hate to hate, because (a) it actually has artistic ambitions, and (b) it stars everyone's favorite bowl of thinking-man's ham salad, Johnny Depp. But it's impossible to ignore the movie's frustrating hat-trick: It's a study of wasted talent on the page — but also in front of the camera, and behind it. Adapted from Stephen Jeffreys' play, the movie opens with a defiant monologue by Depp, playing the legendarily debauched Restoration poet John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester. "Allow me to be frank at the commencement," he says with a sneer. "You will not like me." Is this a reverse-psychology ploy by Jeffreys and director Laurence Dunmore? Is it a bold statement of intent by a Dionysian art-god we'll soon love to hate (or hate to love)? Well, no. Unfortunately, it ends up being a pretty accurate warning about how the next two hours are going to feel. You see, Depp's Rochester is a git. And — and this is what kills the movie — he's a monotonous git. Depp's the sort of over-the-top-committed actor who's almost always fun to watch — even when he gnashes his teeth in junk like Secret Window (2004). And on paper, Rochester has all the makings of one of his greatest roles: In the play and movie, the Earl's a talented poet who spent most of his 33 years thumbing his nose at his patron, King Charles II (John Malkovich) — only to do a spectacular, reckless swan-dive into alcoholism, infidelity, and venereal disease. In one climactic sequence (one guesses it's why Depp took the role), Rochester totters around on two canes with a fogged eye, a metal nose, and garish makeup covering his syphilis scars. all while giving an eloquent speech in the House of Lords. It's one of the few truly great scenes in the movie — the final intersection of the Earl's eloquence, ugliness, and wasted promise. Unfortunately, the dialogue undermines the movie's promise. Rochester speaks in a wall-to-wall series of elaborately phrased celebrations of evil and debauchery — all delivered in the same arrogant snarl by Depp — and it becomes overbearing and two-dimensionally dull with alarming speed. Imagine a movie where your lead character spends almost the entire movie delivering overwrought lines like the following, all in the same charmless, contemptuous tone of voice:

  • "I don't like a whore with sentiment."
  • "I am the cynic of our Golden Age!… Life has no purpose!"
  • "The theatre is my drug — and my illness is so advanced that my physic must be of the highest quality."
  • "If I am a cynic, how have I fallen in love with a plain woman I do not know?"
  • "What is happening in my mind is always more interesting than what's happening in the world outside my mind!"
  • "Anyone can drink. Few can do so with my determination!"
  • "All men would be cowards, if only they had the courage!"

&tc. This overwrought quality extends to the incidental dialogue, as well. Here, for example, is the actress Rochester takes under his wing (Samantha Morton) telling Depp she's angry: "I warn you, I have a temper, and I have been known to strike out with the first object at hand!" Uh, okay. With that kind of notice, at least he'll have plenty of time to duck. The dialogue may have worked onstage, but onscreen, it becomes a thick miasma gumming up the drama. "Anyone can oppose," Charles II admonishes Rochester at one point. "But there comes a time when you have to be for things, as well." It's an interesting point, and the fact that the Earl resists this admonishment to his grave — deliberately squandering his talents on anti-monarchist plays featuring giant phalluses — is thematically interesting, sort of. But dramatically, constantly being told about the Earl's talent and never really seeing it makes the movie feel as pointless as its subject's life.

The Weinstein Company's DVD release of The Libertine features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Director Laurence Dunmore offers a feature commentary, while other extras include the behind-the-scenes documentary "Capturing the Libertine" (36 min.), eight deleted/extended scenes with optional director's commentary and "play all," and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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