Having created an indelible rogue's gallery of lovable freaks and nonconformists, Johnny Depp
ventures into the realm of the monstrous in the demanding film "The Libertine".
He delivers a haunting portrait of the 17th-century poet, provocateur and debauchee John Wilmot
, second Earl of Rochester, who achieved literary acclaim only after his lingering death at 33, ravaged by syphilis and alcohol. One of the achievements of director Laurence Dunmore
's insistently gritty first feature is that his protagonist, a repellent creature of rapacious sensual appetites, grows more recognizable the more physically grotesque he becomes. A dark cousin to such screen rapscallions as Raoul Duke
, Jack Sparrow and, yes, Willy Wonka, Depp's dissolute earl possesses a staggering allure beneath the blood-chilling sneer.
Originally scheduled for September release in the midst of Miramax's crowded housecleaning slate, the unrated Weinstein Co. release world-premiered Friday at AFI Fest. (Not an MPAA signatory, the new shingle de-clined the organization's NC-17.) It bows Nov. 25 in Los Angeles and New York, where it should perform lustily. Wide release in January will be more of a challenge, even with Depp starring.
Like its protagonist, the self-proclaimed cynic of a golden age, "Libertine" makes no concessions to expectation. Shot as if through layers of grime, it takes an ad-mirably different approach to costume fare than high-sheen features like "Shakespeare in Love", which put the Weinsteins' Miramax on the Oscar map.
There's a stark power to Alexander Melman
's grainy, candlelit cinematography (Dunmore himself operated the mostly handheld camera) that is in keeping with the unapologetic subject matter. But the drained-of-red palette and fetid green light, artifices in their own right, are at times more tiring than expressive. Audiences used to being spoon-fed dazzling period regalia might feel mired in the sludge. For those who can stick with it, the rewards are considerable.
"You will not like me", Rochester promises from the shadows in his to-the-camera prologue. Stephen Jeffreys
' screenplay, based on his play, doesn't explain or excuse the behavior of a man devoted to pleasure and yet numb to it. A favorite in the king's court, though no worshipper of the throne, Rochester accepts a commission to write a major work of literature for Charles II (John Malkovich
, who shepherded the project over its nine-year development after playing the title role in the U.S. premiere of the play). Rather than get to work, Rochester pursues his commitment to drink and sex, between escapades trading pornographic ripostes with writers George Etherege (Tom Hollander
) and Charles Sackville (Johnny Vegas).
Rochester is shaken from licentious routine when he sees struggling actress Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton
) booed offstage. She's one of the first generation of female actors -- following the trail blazed by women like Claire Danes
' character in "Stage Beauty" -- and Rochester determines to make her the leading light of the London theater. He succeeds. Known for his brutal honesty, he demands truth from Lizzie's performances, and the fiercely independent actress, overcoming her wariness, flourishes under his tutelage. She also becomes his lover, igniting a passion that Rochester recognizes too late.
Although capable of listening respectfully to the advice of a favorite whore (Kelly Reilly), the earl shows his pious mother (Francesca Annis
) only disdain. Matters are more complex with his wife, Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike
), who has her eyes wide open to his philandering. Pike is extraordinarily affecting as the woman who began her relationship with Rochester as his teenage kidnap victim and ended it as his devoted caretaker. Morton, though underused, conveys Lizzie's ardor and formidable ambition.
Almost unrecognizable in fake nose and massive wig, Malkovich has a contained intensity as the free-thinking sovereign who embraces the wonders of scientific and intellectual progress and who, beneath the official ire, seems to enjoy the raunchy irreverence of Rochester's literary output. Bawdiness notwithstanding, there's a touch of the conventional in the dialogue's self-consciously literary profusion of language. And however flavorful all the supporting turns, the piece is clearly a vehicle for its star.
Contributions by production designer Ben Van Os, costume designer Dien Van Straalen and especially hair and make-up designer Peter Owen ("The Lord of the Rings") are key to the sense of Restoration-era England in the throes of a hangover from post-Puritan excess. The film is dedicated to casting director Mary Selway
, Marlon Brando
and Hunter S. Thompson.
The Weinstein Co.
The Weinstein Co. and Odyssey Entertainment in association with Isle of Man Film present a Mr. Mudd production
Director: Laurence Dunmore
Screenwriter: Stephen Jeffreys
Based on the play by: Stephen Jeffreys
Producers: Lianne Halfon
, John Malkovich
, Russell Smith
Executive producers: Chase Bailey
, Steve Christian, Marc Samuelson
, Peter Samuelson
, Ralph Kamp
, Louise Goodsill
Director of photography: Alexander Melman
Production designer: Ben Van Os
Music: Michael Nyman
Costume designer: Dien Van Straalen
Editor: Jill Bilcock
. Cast: Rochester: Johnny Depp
Elizabeth Barry: Samantha Morton
Charles II: John Malkovich
Elizabeth Malet: Rosamund Pike
Etherege: Tom Hollander
Sackville: Johnny Vegas
Harris: Jack Davenport
Alcock: Richard Coyle
Countess: Francesca Annis
Downs: Rupert Friend
No MPAA rating -- running time 115 minutes