Libertine

Movie Review by Toby White

Starring: Johnny Depp, Paul Ritter, John Malkovich, Stanley Townsend,
Director: Laurence Dunmore

This is a difficult one. Difficult dilemma, that is, not the review of the film, that’s easy, the film’s terrible. It’s the dilemma of wondering what to do when you feel like you’re the only person who thought so. Every review/ad/poster I’m seeing/hearing is raving about this film. Have I lost all sense of good/bad/reason? Have I lost my mo-jo? I’m in a quandary here. Do I stand by my principles and risk my editor never assigning me another film? Or do I toe a line laid down by my peers, grit my teeth and write some sycophantic claptrap about this film drawing on what tiny element happened to make me raise an eyebrow? Well, I’m going to do what they do in movies. So…balls to the editor, this is a matter of integrity and I’m standing by it.

Depp plays John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, friend and courtier to Charles II, wit, lyricist, poet and colossal pervert. From the opening monologue with Wilmot addressing the camera with warnings to ladies that he is “up for it all of the time”, you forgive what you think is chronically poor cinematography (more on that later) and rub your hands gleefully anticipating a raunchy, romp-a-minute riot through 17th Century England. Lovely. Except it’s not. It’s dull, disjointed, pretentious, over-acted and about as risque as a pensioner’s tea party. It’s less about Wilmot’s antics as a libertine as about his relationship with Elizabeth Barry (Morton) and the film dramatically slows from the point of their meeting and an almost theatrical aspect takes over. This is ironic since it’s adapted by Stephen Jeffreys for the screen from his hugely popular play. And I don’t doubt that it would work spectacularly in the theatre. Every adjective I’ve applied in a derisory way above more than compliments how it would work on the stage. In fact, I’d love to see the play. But when theatre is applied to film, however, you are spoon-fed what you usually require your imagination for and that often sets you up for disappointment.

But what of any eyebrow-raising moments? Well, you can tell just by the cast that lined up to be in the film, not to mention Malkovich taking on the risk as executive producer, that the prospect of adapting the play for the screen was an exciting one. Johnny Depp in the title role? Just the sort of thing we’d come to expect from him and, in fairness, he delivers. Support from Samantha Morton, Malkovich, Rosamund Pike, Francesca Annis, Tom Hollander…and Johnny Vegas (odd, sure, but passable) definitely gives the film some pedigree, if an oddly motley one. But they all deliver their lines like they’re on the stage, that’s the trouble.

The film starts so well, with the monologue, the introduction of Charles, the first debauched moment, but auspicious beginnings aren’t enough. Ultimately, the only thing to continue that was in some way inventive and captivating, was the cinematography. It’s all shot by candlelight and, while giving it a frustratingly grainy look, did add an element of authenticity to the period. As for the risque debauchery? Forget it. It’s playground naughtiness, like schoolboys tittering over a porn mag.

Still, I would have liked to have met the real chap…

2 out of 6 stars

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