Let's see. We'd like to make a film that documents the last years of John WIlmot, the second Earl of Rochester. He was an alcoholic, a womanizer, and an insufferably self-absorbed, sharp-tongued cynic. So we're going to need someone who can be incredibly sexy while a snarling ass. Oh, and he's gotta do a great monologue and pull off the whole "dying from syphilis" thing without losing the audience. We'd better call Johnny Depp."
...Just kidding. But for fans of Johnny Depp, that's all you'd need to know to understand what sort of movie this is. The setting is London during the Restoration, yet it is more brothel and theatre than parliament or sunny garden. The tone is dark and depressing, yet I've seldom laughed so heartily. The film is dramatic and documentary, but so surreal one has a hard time believing it ever happened. Much of it, actually, did.
The Libertine lays heavily on the last years of John Wilmot's life, during which his hedonist lifestyle and penchant for off-color antics have begun to catch up with him. Depp plays Wilmot unabashedly, delighting in moments of quick wit or passion only long enough to prove how meaningless they are to him. Here is a man who has an unquenchable lust for life, who fascinates but is, himself, completely bored. One could compare Depp's Earl of Rochester to the pirates he bests as Captain Jack Sparrow.
Despite the title, the amount of sexual content in this movie completely shocked me. John Wilmot rivals the Marquis de Sade as a man driven by sexuality; he goes so far as to satire his king, Charles II, in a play about dildos. Twice he is banished for blatantly disrespecting his monarch. He beds whores, mistresses, male friends--seemingly everyone but his faithful wife, Elizabeth. Wilmot is never without drink; his addictions to sex and alcohol are only rivaled by his love for the theatre, which drives him into the arms of an actress. All of these vices catch up to him near the end of the film. He is destitute, his nose is falling off, his body failing from alcoholism and syphilis and God knows what else.
At the beginning of the film, Wilmot proclaims, "I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and I do not want you to like me." We shouldn't. He's repellant, repulsive, disgusting. Watch the movie, though, and you find yourself smiling for him. He's funny and surprising and honest about his motives--all traits you might've missed were it not for the force of Depp's charisma. He wills you to like this character, to invest yourself emotionally in his ridiculous life, even while he says he cares not.
John Malkovich and Samantha Morton (Minority Report) are equal to the task; the former practically shrouds himself in low-key as the King of England while the latter nearly bursts through your television in her portrayal of a lowly actress.
Both have their share of memorable lines and cannot be ignored, despite the intensity of Depp's John Wilmot. I wouldn't put this on any top ten list, but it's definitely worth seeing if you enjoy period pieces or Johnny Depp's artistry.
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