The role Johnny Depp essays in The Libertine is a maverick poet of the Restoration era who’s drunk, free-spirited, brilliant, a skirt chaser, a dazzling wit, a patron of the arts, and suffers a protracted death from syphilis at the age of 33. John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, is a tragic artist figure in the Jim Morrison vein, heading down a hedonistic path to self-destruction, and what a way to go. Since this is a period film as opposed to a 1960s rock n’ roll indulgence, it commands a certain pedigree of respect from highbrow critics with a taste for broad romanticism. Depp, as usual, brings clever, larger-than-life flourishes and an entertaining petulance to the table, and is ever enjoyable to watch. But The Libertine is a playground for this actor to flounce around in; he opens the film with a dark and brooding variation on Heathcliffe and closes it with rotting teeth, decaying flesh, soiled trousers, and whimpering pleas for forgiveness for having lived his life as a cad. In other words, he wants an Oscar really, really badly. (His closing lines in the film are, “Do you like me now? Do you like me now? Do you like me?”) But the film built around his performance is leaden and monotonous, crusted in the faux-realism of handheld cameras, muddy streets, and dingy castle hallways. Embracing a grim and stodgy murkiness, it’s amazing that the performances shine through so brightly. Mercurial and bracing in her ability to cut through this Johnny Depp showcase is the great Samantha Morton as a bold actress-in-training who really craves the love of an audience over the love of a man. Thankfully, Morton’s gravitas doesn’t fall into go-girl independence because she doesn’t need anyone’s approval. Less fortunate is John Malkovich, who is more restrained than usual even sporting a gigantic false nose. As King Charles II, he’s either ordering Rochester to his aid or marveling at Rochester’s ingenuity. “Johnny, you did it!” he says, not once but twice, in one of those Oscar-winning moments where the entire cast applauds the hero. It all reminds me of a theory of film: All these damned movies are really about studio executives who are cheating their partners and fucking around behind their wives’ backs, but they’re really good people at heart! Johnny Depp plays their stand-in here, and like them he just wants to be adored. “Do you like me?” Sure, Johnny, we do sometimes, but we like it better when you don’t have to ask.
- The Weinstein Company
- 115 min
- Laurence Dunmore
- Stephen Jeffreys
- Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander
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