It must have seemed like a wonderful idea at the time: to Úpater the theatre-going bourgeoisie with a play about the most dissolute rake who ever lived, John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, showing us on stage both his royal connections - there's a part for King Charles II - and his hedonism that led to death from syphilis at 33. John Malkovich even played the role on stage at Steppenwolf in Chicago, twelve years ago.
And now - or I should say three years ago, when the play was remade as a film but not released - we have the story again in all its licentious scandal - "Ladies, I am always up for it," he tells us in a monologue at the opening. Unfortunately the film is not, lacking enough power or even sexual frisson to engage us. So "The Libertine" is a sex film without enough sex, and a political film without the politics. And even though the historical Wilmot is remembered today for his body of poetic work, the film doesn't even include that.
What it does have is the great Johnny Depp, who if he put his mind to it I am sure could play anything from Edna Turnblad to King Lear, and probably both in a single day. Depp is the most compelling actor working in film today, and it is almost impossible to take one's eyes off of him when he is on screen. In a better film than this, his would be a performance for the ages. Malkovich himself plays Charles II, a fey king who cannot quite bring himself to separate from what you might call his house rake.
The problem here lies not in the acting but in the script, by Stephen Jeffreys from his own play. He gives us the mechanics of a dissolute life but not an understanding of the person living it. When we meet Wilmot he is married and the lord of a country manor; he is busy pleasuring his wife (Rosamund Pike) in a carriage on their way to London. But he is also involved with a prostitute and no doubt many other women (the historical Wilmot was bisexual, a fact the film does not mention). He meets budding actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), who is being booed off the stage for her weak performance, takes her under his wing, so to speak, and makes her into a great theatre diva, at which point she rejects him.
Now showing the ravages of syphilis but still loved by his wife - go figure - he slowly dies. End of film. Well, it's an ending, but without a beginning or a meaningful middle there's not much to hold onto. The film exhibits ravages of another kind as well, namely that just before shooting was to start it lost the bulk of its production money. So with the exception of a magnificent opening shot that swirls around the boxes, stalls and stage of a London theatre and reminds us of what the great Max Ophuls could do with a camera, "The Libertine" is photographed in dark corners, darkly. Did they not at least have a budget for lights?