The Libertine

  • 2004
  • Movie
  • R
  • Drama, Historical

Johnny Depp's coruscating, rigorously uningratiating performance as debauched, self-destructive 17th-century aristocrat John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, is the glue that doesn't quite hold together first-time director Laurence Dunmore's adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys' 1994 play. A celebrated wit, poet and drunken carouser, Wilmot systematically squandered...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Johnny Depp's coruscating, rigorously uningratiating performance as debauched, self-destructive 17th-century aristocrat John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, is the glue that doesn't quite hold together first-time director Laurence Dunmore's adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys' 1994 play. A celebrated wit, poet and drunken carouser, Wilmot systematically squandered his talents, alienated his admirers and friends, besmirched his family's reputation, tempted fate with insane recklessness — most famously fulfilling King Charles II's commission for a play celebrating his reign with a scandalously pornographic spectacle — and died a protracted, humiliating and disfiguring death from syphilis at age 33. England, 1675: Wilmot is out of favor with politically besieged King Charles (John Malkovich, who staged the play at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 1996 and played Wilmot) and has been exiled to his family's country estate, dire punishment for a man-about-town who lives for London's theaters, brothels and ale halls. But Charles owes the Wilmot family — during the anti-monarchist turmoil of the 1640s, the present earl's father spirited the teenage Charles out of the country, saving him from certain execution. Charles also likes the wayward 28-year-old Wilmot, who's been banished, imprisoned and reprieved repeatedly. Once again allowed back into the king's inner circle, Wilmot brings his wife, spirited heiress Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike), to London and then ignores her, devoting himself to blackout drinking, joyless whoring and transforming prostitute Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), an aspiring actress whose spark of talent is buried beneath the prevailing declamatory style of performance, into the toast of the London stage. Barry proves Wilmot's equal in willfulness; against his own will he's seduced by her intelligence, fierce pride and keen insight into his own character. Alone among his contemporaries, she recognizes that his vices aren't about lust for life; obliterating libertinage is his refuge from his contempt for the world and everyone and everything in it, especially himself. Dunmore's film is as defiantly perverse as its subject: His historically accurate vision of 17th-century London is filthy and pestilent, photographed in grimy shades of brown and gray and smudgily lit by sputtering candles. It's of a piece with Depp's performance, which opens with a shot in which he emerges in close-up from a veil of muddy shadow to warn viewers that they're not going to like him, nor should they. Though Dunsmore, Depp and Jeffreys' conceits work more vividly as ideas than as filmmaking, they're ruthlessly true to themselves and grimly powerful.

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  • Released: 2004
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Johnny Depp's coruscating, rigorously uningratiating performance as debauched, self-destructive 17th-century aristocrat John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, is the glue that doesn't quite hold together first-time director Laurence Dunmore's adaptation of St… (more)

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