John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), the Second Earl of Rochester, is a debauched libertine enjoying fame in Restoration England with his daring writing. A close confidante of the high-living King Charles II (John Malkovich), the Earl delights in lampooning England's royals with his subversive wit and in scandalising London society with his sexual escapades. But when the Earl falls in love with Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), the theatrical protégé he plans to turn into England's biggest star, their torrid affair and a devastating betrayal begins the Earl's plunge from the heights of celebrity to the depths of ruin, as he seeks his final redemption.
Review by Louise Keller:
The performances are impeccable, but what might have been a handsome period drama, is compromised by a drawn out screenplay and over-stylised grainy production. In the opening monologue, Johnny Depp promises us we will not like him. In fact, he almost dares us not to like him. And while his outrageous and debauched Earl of Rochester is often unlikeable, he has an appealing defiance with a paradoxical wisdom that is both his strength and weakness. Depicting the crude and the crass (with simulated sex and oversized dildos), his poetry and plays aim to shock - audiences of the time and audiences today. His life is filled with excessive indulgences; the price he pays is high. With a swagger reminiscent of his role in The Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp is mesmerizing as his character undergoes a dramatic transformation, never swaying from the philosophy that any experiment carried out is at one's own expense.
Stephen Jeffreys' screenplay (an adaptation of his own theatrical play) is confusing at times and the effectiveness of the relationships is not maximised. The diction is 17th Century-esque, but not the language, which has all the colloquialisms of modern day vulgarities. I found it grating to watch wigged, costumed characters, delivering seemingly out of context language that would make a modern-day sailor blush. Nonetheless, the world of heaving bosoms, orgies and sodomy lures us with its scandal, while Michael Nyman's distinctive score whirls its lasso of claustrophobia.
John Malkovich delivers a still and commanding performance as King Charles II, well camouflaged under a fake nose and long dark curls, his scrupulously darting eyes often his only visible movement. Samantha Morton makes her mark as actress Elizabeth Barry who believes men are hurdles that must be negotiated. While she also becomes the Earl's mistress, she is careful to never be in his debt. It is the prostitute Jane (Kelly Reilly) and his wife Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike) whose loyalty and unshakeable love, irrespective of the consequences, that moves us.
Shot on The Isle of Man and post produced in Victoria, this dark tale of excess is pure theatre. It's an ambitious project whose individual achievements are more successful than the project as a whole. A little like overcooked haute cuisine.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Infamous John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647 - 1680) preceded infamous Marquis de Sade (1740 - 1814) by a century, doing things in England that de Sade later developed with considerable relish in France. Johnnie Wilmot died much younger, his nose rebuked by syphilis, his spirit rebuked by love. It's a universal story (found in its less extreme forms in films like Alfie) in many ways, showing that the redemptive power of love, which is so appealing to audiences, is not necessarily a physical cure as well.
Stephen Jeffreys' screenplay is a robust and seemingly diligent recounting of Wilmot's wickedly wanton life, and director Laurence Dunmore imposes a pre-electric period gloominess that befits the fire and brimstone forecast by those who disapprove of Wilmot's willy-waving. Indeed, the gloom is such that at times the focus puller can't find his target.
It's (again) Johnny Depp as Johnny Wilmot that makes this a fascinating film, a characterisation that delivers everything we want to know - and perhaps things we'd rather not - about a man whose purity was his impurity, if you follow. He expects us at the start, nay, he commands us, not to like him. But how can we not like a man inside Johnny Depp who produces a Royal command performance that is an orgy inside a Royal insult, staged in a manner that would be confronting even for today's sexually limitless arts community. Or a man whose weakness is women ...
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JILL BILCOCK INTERVIEW
LIBERTINE, THE (MA)
CAST: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Paul Ritter, Stanley Townsend, Fransesca Annis, Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Johnny Vegas, Jack Davenport
PRODUCER: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith
DIRECTOR: Laurence Dunmore
SCRIPT: Stephen Jeffreys (play by Jeffereys)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alexander Melman
EDITOR: Jill Bilcock
MUSIC: Michael Nyman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ben van Os
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 27, 2006
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Home Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: November 30, 2006