From the opening, disingenuous monologue, Johnny Depp’s libertine fairly spits contempt. If his Pirates of the Caribbean turn evoked Keith Richard’s slurring hedonist, his John Wilmot is pure Brian Jones. The Earl of Rochester, it seems, was a wild man.
The film promises a Cassanovian tale of sexual conquest and bawdy humour but thankfully doesn’t deliver. Instead we’re treated to the spectacle of a man on a collision course with himself. Short on ambition and possessing a surplus of imagination, Wilmot tossed off verse and ripped bodices whenever the desire struck — the former too rarely and the latter too often. His favorite pursuit, however, was drink. Drink of the sort that in cinematic biographies is versatile shorthand for self-loathing, societal critique and the tragic squandering of an artistic gift.
We can assume a certain amount of creative license was taken, but the Earl of Rochester was doubtless a fascinating figure living in a vivid column of history. Charles II’s precarious restoration to the throne took place during a decadent period of — if the scenes of orgies taking place amid London’s foggy shrubbery are to be believed. The king’s relationship to Wilmot is the historical anchor to this character study and thanks to John Malkovich’s restrained performance, functions brilliantly. The emotional centre of the film, however, is Wilmot’s relationship to actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), a woman he rescues from a scornful audience and then intoxicates with his unique brand of emotional intensity. Her rise as a great performer mirrors his fall as a man.
In its reliance on theatrics and emotional posturing, The Libertine can be accused of gimmickry, but blessed with a consistently compelling script and a stirring cast, led by the immutably charming Depp, it succeeds by the only measure Wilmot himself would have honoured — it entertains.
Opens November 23