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A Schlock to the System: Laurence Dunmore’s “The Libertine”

A Schlock to the System: Laurence Dunmore's "The Libertine"

Laurence Dunmore‘s film “The Libertine” sketches the glory days and final detumescence of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the notorious Restoration wit and rakehell who wrote highly allusive poems, some sexually explicit, others philosophical, many a vexing combination. Based upon the play by Stuart Jeffreys, who adapted the screenplay, the film fails to render the complex points of tension between a remarkable individual and his age, straitjacketing its subject in a series of conventional dramatic narratives not dissimilar from the societal norms that alternately bored, infuriated, and inspired the actual Rochester.

The most persuasive aspects of the film– which I guess I’m happy exists but needs far more whores and clammy joys–are its faithful vision of a 17th-century England by grime and candlelight and those highlights in the lead performance by Johnny Depp, in which he does more than coast on attitude and complexion.

The film’s action takes place in an England fresh off the Civil War, ruled by King Charles II, who jousts with an emboldened Parliament over funds. Rochester, who like Depp goes by Johnny, runs with a smart set of playwrights and dandies, the kind who speak in permanently weary tones and prissily practice what modern scholars call “dissing.” He hangs out, drinks, talks about sex, reportedly even engages in it, and tosses off boner mots from his works. A royal favorite via his dead father, he gets summoned by the king (John Malkovich, who played Rochester in the American stage production) for expositional lectures. Charlie commissions him to write a play to be performed before a visiting French ambassador.

The film’s crippling problem is a tedious view of Rochester’s life as first and foremost a story of one individual’s self-destruction, an approach that misses, ghettoizes, and arguably condemns the rich views from the inside on his own sticky terms. The sequences dealing with the commissioned play demonstrate exactly to what extent Rochester gets short-changed as a result. Our pioneering poet puts on a joyously off-color show with fistfuls of phalluses, some wielded by maidens in diaphanous robes, one giant specimen ridden by a dwarf; Johnny himself plays the monarch of this kingdom, declaiming his sexual powers as head of state. The king stops the proceedings, and the whole is played as a misfired fuck-you gesture, the theatrical performance edited as a series of goofy overplayed entrances, with little of actual verse heard. It comes off as shock for the shock’s sake, a plot point that occasions Rochester’s banishment.

Part of the reason this particular sequence is notable is because its omissions epitomize the fundamental conservatism of the movie’s exploration of Rochester’s challenges: it omits, first, the play’s relations to Rochester’s bisexuality, itself simplified in the film to some same-sex handholding; and, second, the actual play’s elegantly satirical politico-sexual attack on the throne, in an age when royal succession, the political theater, and prevailing rhetoric all involved and demanded the intertwining of the bodies politic and physical.

Instead, we get narrative hand-me-downs that keep us moving, like the “Star Is Born” subplot whereby Rochester takes actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton, given little) under his keep-it-real theatrical tutelage; and the modern-suburbia-era estrangement from his Long-Suffering Wife, Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike, also currently swanning through “Pride and Prejudice“). Scenes of the perverse genius behind-the-music therefore include his forcing Barry to repeat lines in rehearsal ad infinitum (someone observes something like “No one has ever taught theater like that,” to which Rochester triumphantly, been-waiting-for-that-all-day, exclaims: “Exactly!”), and his wife wrestling a bottle of wine out of his hands and shouting at a servant, twice, the second time louder, to leave them alone.

The purpose of calling out these omissions and simplifications is not to niggle over accuracy but to underline how the fact of transgression is not interesting without either investigating its meaning or faithfully recording its experience. “The Libertine” stops short of doing either and offers another demonstration of the axiom that history on film is anachronistically bound by the censors of the current age. Why not a treatment of Rochester’s agonizing over the tyrannical false comforts of unskeptically embraced rationalism (the subject of his “Satyre Against Mankind”), or, barring that, premature ejaculation (“In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,/…A touch from any part of her had done [it]:/Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt”)? The best part of “The Libertine” comes in the last phase of the film, when Johnny Pottymouth rather suddenly becomes a poster boy for the pox: Depp’s face gets deprettified, scabbed over and peeling like shaved wax, ultimately outfitted with a noseguard, the kind that keeps the nose from slithering off the face. It’s telling and tiresome that one of the most viscerally vivid moments of sensuality should be to depict his ravaged comeuppance rather than his exuberant sensual exploits, but, like the film’s many boot splats into English mud, it’s a step in the right direction.

[ Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer and the assistant editor of Film Comment. ]

Johnny Depp in a scene from Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company/Peter Mountain.

Take 2 By Justin Stewart

John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester during the mid-to-late 17th century, friend of King Charles II, and witty author of the salacious “Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery” is something more, historically, than a poor man’s de Sade. Likewise Laurence Dunmore, making his first leap from commercial and music video work to feature film directing, is something more than the British McG. But perhaps there is not much more. His movie is a marvel of grubby atmosphere, with film grain big as popcorn balls, rubbed-out grays and reds (human skin is either green or off-white,) and exteriors oppressively thick with piss, mud, and mist. This is certainly no Adidas ad, but Dunmore’s approach is modern; his choice of jittery handheld (usually operated by his own hand) is a rare coupling with such powdered wig fare, and the style helps bring the stench of loose Restoration-era London ever closer.

If Dunmore is a budding master of look and feel, he is all thumbs with the larger concerns of sweep and scope which “The Libertine” aims to project. Johnny Depp’s Wilmot promises us in a prologue that we “are not going to like him,” that he is sick, twisted and evil to his core. But the movie can’t seem to wait to make him sympathetic as it pushes him up a typical “flawed hero who must fall for his cause” arc. His “flaws,” which we are led to believe involve the height of sexual illicitness, need largely to be assumed as we’re only shown him finger-banging his wife (“Doom”‘s Rosamund Pike) and enjoying a Katherine Willey-style hallway groping. (He also accidentally, or only in fantasy, stumbles upon an orgy in St. Edward’s Park.) Constantly fondling and taking deep slugs from goblets of wine, Depp’s Earl comes off as little more than a lazy alcoholic, with a deep cache of snappy philosophical witticisms the only evidence of a great talent being laid to waste. A climactic speech given by Wilmot to Parliament in support of the King (a Cyrano-nosed John Malkovich) is meant to be a crescendo of redemption, but Depp’s syphilitic scar makeup–he ages like a sped-up static shot of Dorian Gray‘s portrait –silver nose cover, cane-assisted hobble, and cartoonish delivery bring to mind only Captain Jack and bad CGI ghost effects, and it’s nearly unbearable. Although Dunmore shows plenty of stylistic promise, this misshapen tale of ribaldry betrays an amateur hand.

[ Justin Stewart is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Take 3 By Lauren Kaminsky

“You will not like me… and I do not want you to like me,” taunts Johnny Depp’s Earl of Rochester in the prologue that rescues “The Libertine” from its own worst nightmare: convention. The film works hard to convince us that Rochester’s sexual exploits are outrageously transgressive but that either his contemporaries or we should be shocked by debauchery is difficult to swallow, in part because this film succeeds too well in acquainting us with the seedier side of the 17th century.

All the history we need is cheekily summarized in intertitles: if the Restoration of the monarchy was a raucous party (at least compared to the reign of Cromwell’s Puritanical regicides), the “hangover” hit in 1675. This is communicated visually with the help of mud, rats, oily black smoke and soot, garish makeup and copious cleavage, all frequently captured in soft-focus with an unsteady handheld look. The exposed flesh is exclusively female but the eroticism all male, befitting a society in which high-born women are secluded, actresses are necessarily prostitutes, and fun is the exclusive provenance of men of means. Accordingly, Rochester’s boyish drinking pal Downs (Rupert Friend) is the easiest on the eyes, all high cheekbones and rouged lips, whereas the actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) appears haggard and shapeless. Which is why it comes as no shock to discover that Rochester and Downs are more than friends, while his enduring connection to Barry is surprising and provocative.

Sex is the least interesting of Rochester’s exploits, made even less stimulating by the film’s thoroughly conventional narrative style. Everything that is good and unsettling about this film comes from Depp’s captivating performance, made even more intriguing by the fact that his character is also called “Johnny.” Through this self-described “cynic of our golden age,” Depp conveys the tragedy of a man who has bucked societal convention and is left with only himself to blame for his limitations.

[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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