Karen Ponders The Libertine.

by Karen Gsteiger

I had been looking forward to seeing The Libertine, which is supposedly based on the life of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, as soon as I had heard of the project and especially when I had learned that Johnny Depp would be starring in the lead role. Johnny Depp is never less than 100 percent committed to even what most actors would consider a throw-away role (See: Pirates of the Caribbean), and at times even a bad movie is elevated to the level of "watchable" just because he's in it. (See: Secret Window...actually, don't. That movie really did suck and is probably not the best example of the previous point.) I vaguely remember studying the Earl of Rochester and the Reformation for a couple of weeks in a college English class, and advance press promised that The Libertine would be racy and controversial. A perfect combination, right?

I was undaunted by poor reviews before opening night. Ebert gave the movie three stars, but it's got a measly 31 percent on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer. I have found myself at odds with the majority of critics on a number of occasions, especially when the subject matter is a little off-beat, so I was still willing to walk into the theater with an open mind. Besides, I have more fun writing angry, spite-filled, sarcastic reviews than enthusiastic words of praise, so overall, even if it did turn out to be a bomb, it appeared to be a win-win situation for me.

However, writing this review has proven to be more difficult than I had anticipated. I wouldn't call the film bad, as some critics have done, but it certainly is not an enjoyable experience. At times the film is riveting, but towards the end, especially, it is an ordeal to watch. I left the theater with a major case of the heebie-jeebies that did not let up for a couple of hours. So, while I feel that seeing The Libertine is a worthwhile cinematic experience, I'm not sure if it's something that you would want to subject yourself to more than once, if at all. Oh, and if you're trying to crib material for some class report, you're not going to find the film terribly informational.

So...some specifics. The Libertine is set during the Restoration period, when King Charles II was "restored" to the throne in England. After years of Puritan Parliamentary rule, the Restoration was marked by bawdiness in the arts, and the Earl of Rochester delighted in making his poetry and plays as sexually licentious and obscene as possible (in ways that would be controversial in our own Puritan revival age). Plot-wise, I'm giving nothing away by informing you that in this movie, you will see Rochester sneer and tell dirty jokes to characters whom I should remember from my studies, stage a hilariously inappropriate play for the King, vex his enormously put-upon wife, coach and seduce a great actress (Elizabeth Barry, as played by Samantha Morton), and basically drink and whore himself to death in the dark days before penicillin.

Much has been made by critics of the prologue wherein Depp as Rochester assures us that we "will not like" him. I was not a huge fan of this prologue personally because it highlights the downside of Depp's performance. Depp is, of course, 100 percent committed to this role, but he, like the rest of the film, is at times trying a little too hard to be unpleasant. His reading is just a touch melodramatic, I felt. The tone of his performance throughout tends to be rather one-note, and that note is "ill tempered." It's been my personal experience that the most debauched people I have ever met have also been the world's most potent charmers, and for some reason, Depp is keeping the charm largely bottled up, even before his character could be said to be officially in irrevocable decline. There must be a reason that his beautiful and intelligent wife would kiss his NASTY-ASS face (more on that later) at his deathbed. Depp promises to be Eeeeeevil, and the film would want you to revel in his unrepentant badness, but his character isn't really all that terribly Eeeeeevil. Just skanky and surly. But there were moments when Depp unleashed real passion, and those moments were worth the price of admission, in my opinion.

Most of these moments occurred when Rochester was interacting and teaching Elizabeth Barry, an actress who goes from being utterly reviled to beloved by her audience. The film implies that Rochester's coaching should be given credit, but in a wonderful monologue, Barry fiercely protects her considerable talent from his appropriation. Both Morton and Depp play their scenes together with such intensity that you can't help but be riveted. And for my money, Samantha Morton is probably the most talented and most beautiful actress working today. In a film that is designed to be as ugly as possible, she is never less than radiant. Honestly, I could have cared less about the grimy sex scenes or gruesome aftermath...I wanted more of Rochester's and Barry's passion for and addiction to the theater. The film's best lines came from this section of the film: "In my experience, those who do not like you fall into two categories: the stupid, and the envious. The stupid will like you in five years' time, the envious never." As a frustrated artist, I'm ready to make that my rallying cry.

So the acting is quite impressive and the dialogue can be engaging, but the other elements of the film make it very difficult to watch. The cinematography is purposely repulsive to recreate the grittiness of an era where clearly no one is wearing deodorant. It reminds me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when Eric Idle's character observes, "He must be a king...he hasn't got shit all over him." Everything in the film has a sickly yellow pallor, and the lighting is very, very dim. As I said to Sam, my filmgoing companion, "This movie has been filmed in Syphilis-vision...I feel like I'm going blind!" The director, Laurence Dunmore, absolutely glories in Rochester's final decline. As his punishment for the constant drinking and all those whores, Rochester contracts syphilis, and we are treated to every indignity of his untreated illness...the open sores, the skeletal features, the loss of his nose. Much of it, I feel, is repetitive and probably unnecessary. More than once, I whispered to Sam as I watched the movie by peeking through my shielded eyes, "God, just let him die already!" It's not as though I was even that emotionally invested in Rochester's character. I was hardly devastated or surprised by this turn in events (and in fact had been prepared by reviews), but it's at this point that The Libertine basically turns into a horror movie. If you have basic compassion for any given human being, you're going to be squirming at the end of this film, and I suspect you won't feel better at the conclusion. Now life is filled with all sorts of unpleasant things, like nasty diseases, and some people don't mind being given the heebie-jeebies in the name of art. Like I said, The Libertine isn't a bad movie...just a very hard one to watch.

So would I recommend it? Uh, I guess. If you're interested in the subject matter, give it a go, but don't go solely for the sex, as the film makes copulation look about as appetizing as a glass of milk that is three weeks past its expiration date. Prepare to feel icky all throughout and then for a few hours afterwards. Oh, and ladies (and agreeable gents), you may not totally dislike Rochester by the end, but you're certainly not going to find him attractive. Not the best film to sate your lust for Depp. But you will emerge from the theater with a much healthier appreciation for antibiotics.