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Culture Reviews
The Libertine
35 mm 
Directed by Laurence Dunmore. Written by Stephen Jeffreys. Cast: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike and Tom Hollander. UK, 115 min.

By Alex Meredith

Review Top Sheet: A period biopic of the notorious seventeenth century English cad John Wilmot. The film takes you into the seedy side of Restoration England through the portrayal of one of its sleaziest characters and attempts to show it wasn’t all just moustache stroking, religious squabbles and war avoidance back then (though there is a taste of all those on offer too).

Mostly, this film is about Johnny Depp. The coincidence of his name being the same as his character’s simply allows the support cast to chant it throughout in support of his Oscar bid. Altogether now, “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny”.

Will you like this film?

Yes if: you think Johnny Depp is a divine being, the beach scene in Baywatch gets you hot under the collar and you like English to be spoken in a way that is incomprehensible to foreigners.

No if: you had hoped to see something a bit raunchy and seventeenth century bisexuals in wigs talking vaguely about how naughty they are was not what you had in mind.

Maybe if: you have been, are, or intend to be, a bad boy, and need reassurance that you could be a lot worse (alcoholic, womanising syphilis victims however, might find it all a bit depressing).

Comments: Being so carried by one character (and actor), you almost expect there to be limited substance on offer here. We are there to find out about the man, not his story. The sad thing is that this film could have had both if only it hadn’t left so much out.
The outstanding omission is in the development of lead character (John Wilmot). We never get a real insight, resulting in thoughts about his survival, prosperity or otherwise, ranking somewhere below “I’m sure John Malkovich’s (Charles II) nose is not normally that big”. It’s probably not the lasting effect that the Director was hoping for.

Depp is however, outstanding as Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. His performance oozes arrogance and conceit as well as the intelligence and pathos that this role requires. My only reservation is that it is a role that was made for him. John Wilmot is a Captain Jack Sparrow for grown ups, with an intellectual twist and less boats. His performance makes you believe that, if Depp had been born 350 years ago, he would have been every bit as uncontrollable as Wilmot; in the same way that Silence of the Lambs makes you think Anthony Hopkins should have been a serial killer.

Out-of-five star ratings:
Story **
Dialogue ***
Substance *
Film Craft **

Story comments: The tale of John Wilmot’s demise is an entertaining one and when you consider the cast, and the historical setting, it has the makings of a brilliant film.

Unfortunately like Wilmot’s talent, the massive potential has been wasted. We get half the film we could have; a bits-and-pieces view of what’s going on in Wilmot’s hedonistic life that never quite adds up to any sense of sympathy, or loathing. If we are really going to see the Earl’s soul, a personal insight into the madness should be to the fore, but other than the chest-beating of the introduction and conclusion, there is a definite lack of soul searching or soliloquy. The result is a frustrating experience.

Wilmot’s opening monologue introduces a character that he promises we will despise. Now I don’t regard myself as a prude so having “big-up’d” himself, I expected nothing less than utterly shocking debauchery. Yet, apart from the constant drinking, this Earl is a pussycat. If Wilmot is a player, then he is well past his peak form and either the introduction is too strong or, more accurately in my opinion, the story has been cut back to the point where it fails to live up to the billing.

Add the implausible sub-plot of Wilmot’s personal quest to produce a play to help the King to stave off a war (and possibly save the world) and you start to feel that this film is just a shop window for the main star. Unfortunately, that is exactly what it boils down to.

Dialogue Comments: This film contains endless dialogue and the close up angles put the spotlight on the words and their delivery. If you like the flamboyant expressionist vocabulary of Restoration England then you will enjoy the view. If English is not your first language or you suspect Shakespeare was dyslexic it might be tough going. For an hour nothing is said without dressing it up in full period obscurity and barely a sentence goes by without a rambling metaphor.

For a traditionalist like me, this verbose beating-around-the-bush was music to my ears and it was disappointing to see the resort to Sesame Street prose towards the end as the writer tried to force his points home.

As you might have guessed, Depp handles the technical script faultlessly.

Substance comments: Hats off to the filmmakers for dipping their toes in the water of some powerful themes; Love, Talent, Courage, Self Belief and Class are all featured which would normally leave you with plenty to digest on the trolleybus home. Unfortunately if we are going to take something away from this film then it has to come from the Earl’s character and since we know him only superficially, I for one, was not moved by the sales pitch.
Otherwise, the tenacity of Lizzie Barrie (Samantha Morton) is inspiring on some levels but there are inconsistencies in her character, leaving the overall impression that she is an ambitious unsentimental actress – not much to chew on there either.

In a final throw of the dice, Wilton’s epilogue tries to push the theme of Acceptance, but unmoved by the picture, my thoughts had turned to my dinner and I was only seeing Depp’s desperate final plea for the academy recognition. I guess I just get cynical after an hour and a half’s lobbying.

Filmcraft comments: They make some people spew, some see them as totally last season, but I like handheld cameras. In this film Dunmore uses them effectively, giving motion to long static wordy exchanges and intimacy to the moments of tension, particularly when Barrie is on stage.

Crucially the tight angles give London an authentic, cramped feel and the director has gone all out on seventeenth century grime, from the rats on the boots to the sweat on the wenches’ breasts. The effect is not beautiful, but it is convincing, which is more then can be said for the undercooked story.

If anyone is going to make the most of anything in this film, it would have to be statue-chaser Depp. His pale good looks come up well under the close attention of the handheld, particularly in the variable light of the backstage scenes.

A taste of the story: enfant terrible Wilton is called back from exile to write a literary work of genius for the king, falls in love with a plain leading lady who he coaches to stardom, before offending his benefactor and then rescuing the monarchy.

27.01.06
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