The Johnny Depp Archive

The Libertine (2005)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Johnny Vegas, Kelly Reilly

Directed by: Laurence Dunmore

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Johnny Depp as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, in The Libertine

'You're not going to like me,' sneers John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, in his candid opening speech, which he delivers, Big Brother diary room style dead straight to camera. And it has to be said, were he played by anyone other than Johnny Depp, we probably wouldn't. Debauched, disgusting, callous and cruel, cynical, amoral and utterly selfish, he's really not the kind of chap you want to be around. Except of course that he's also dashing, witty, daring and absolutely bloody gorgeous. at the beginning of the film, anyway.

Those of you who've read my review of The Tragedian will be familiar with the three stages of fame, as typified by the King himself, Mr Elvis Presley. To use that analogy again, in The Libertine we get a small amount of rhinestone jumpsuit Vegas and an awful lot of bloated, drug addled dead on the toilet.

A brilliant intellectual, daring wit, great writer and canny critic of contemporary society, the Earl of Rochester should have been the Shakespeare of his day. Instead, he deliberately chose to piss his talents up the wall, writing smutty poetry and pornographic skits.

Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry and Johnny Depp as John Wilmost in The Libertine

The Vegas period begins when 'Johnny' is called back from exile to the court of Charles II (John Malkovich). Assailed by fires and plagues and debt, Charles's reign is not exactly going to plan, and he looks to Wilmot to produce a work of literature that will elevate and celebrate his time on the throne and so fulfil the promise of his glorious Restoration. And what does Johnny do? Wheels a six foot willy onto the stage and surrounds it with masturbating maidens. Once more, exile beckons, as do the deep fried peanut butter sandwiches - or, in Johnny's case, alcoholism and syphilis.

Meanwhile, this depraved connoisseur of c**t has somehow managed to fall in love with a 'horse-faced' actress called Lizzy Barry (played by the not at all horse-faced Samantha Morton). Of course he doesn't really love her; he loves the idea of her. She is the first actress on the English stage to take note of Hamlet's lesson to the players and reject dramatic histrionics in favour of acting that's true to life. For the dissipated Earl, the theatre represents a kind of heightened reality, an escape from a world whose pleasures have lost their power to thrill, a new stimulus for a cynical, jaded palate. The closer the theatre can come to real life, the easier it will be for him to lose himself in its passionate, tumultuous alternative universe.

Sound a bit serious? Well, yes, it is. For, while the racy TV ads and tantalising 18 certificate promised a bawdy, bodice-ripping romp in the style of Moll Flanders or Tipping the Velvet, the film itself, though peppered with dirty language and dildos, is fairly deep. Like fellow Restoration drama Stage Beauty, it raises profound philosophical questions about artifice and veracity, drama and life, through its examination of the art of acting - both on stage and off. The Earl of Rochester is a man of many masks, each contradicting the other, and even at the end of the film, when his face becomes literally disguised by disease, we're still not sure which is the real one. He professes to be a lover of life, a Marquis de Sade style sex specialist and ruthless pleasure seeker, but he never actually seems to have much fun. Bored to tears by his selfish, hedonistic existence, he knows fine well that his dissolute life is hollow and empty of meaning, and yet he does nothing to remedy it. He clearly has a strong connection to his young wife Elizabeth (a strong performance from likeable British actress Rosamund Pike) yet treats her like dirt. Surrounded by sycophants and hangers on, he has the ear of the King and the court at his feet, yet ends up isolated and helpless, ravaged by disease and pissing his breeks.

Drunk and disorderly - Johnny Depp in The Libertine

Of course, making yourself hideous and dying in an unpleasant way is a great way to win yourself an Oscar, and if Johnny is passed over again this year it really will be a crime, because his performance as the Earl of Rochester has Oscar written all over it in permanent marker (or perhaps quill pen). Exuding charisma and caddish charm, he manages to be both irresistible and repellent at the same time, stealing the show with carefree panache like the evil twin of Captain Jack Sparrow, but entirely without his pantomime hamminess. This is a considered, multi-faceted and deeply powerful portrayal of a complex, much maligned character and is real proof (as if we needed it) that Johnny is a genius

Not that The Libertine is a one man show - the supporting cast do their best not to be shoved too far from the limelight. John Malkovich is the most convincing Charles II I've ever seen (even if he is hindered by a rather strange glowing prosthetic nose) and Tom Hollander (Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice) and Johnny Vegas are marvellous as the Earl's louche boozing buddies. Throw in some grainy cinematography, nifty documentary style camera work and enough mud to drown a family of hippos and you end up with a film that is gritty, compelling, cerebral, shocking, occasionally funny and exceedingly absorbing - rather like the Earl of Rochester, in fact.

'Do you like me now?' Johnny challenges us bitterly as the film draws to an end. The answer is: yes, but we know we really shouldn't.

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