Friday, August 04, 2006

The Libertine

“My name is John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, and I do not want you to like me.”

This is how we meet the title character of this film. He addresses us face to face, dimly lit, wineglass in hand. “You will not like me.”

In an unnervingly direct opening monologue, Johnny Depp makes it perfectly clear what kind of character we’re dealing with here. There isn’t much sentimental romanticism in this movie. It will make you flinch and squirm. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

Seventeenth century England is portrayed in all of its muddy, manure caked, misty glory.

One of the first things that struck me about this film is the lighting. It fools you into thinking that it’s not just set in that time period, but is in this era, with this yellow flickering light. (I stuck around for the special features, and yes, it was shot in England and Wales, and lit predominantly by candles. It’s authentic.)

The film has a grainy look to it that gives a perfectly gritty feeling. When contrasted with all the beautiful elaborate clothes, it forces us to think of the dirty side of the wealthy and priviledged among the nobility. Most of it was shot with cameras balanced on the shoulder instead of on a dolly, which makes us see the whole thing in a slightly drunken viewpoint...very appropriate.

It’s all set off with lots of background noise (often distracting but jarringly realistic) and some very jaunty music.

Based in history, the story tells us that King Charles II has been restored to the throne and ushered in an age of renewed interest in art, culture, and science, along with lots of drunken orgies.

Oh what fun for men in long curly wigs and high boots, and women in boob-boosting bodices!

Unfortunately there have also been plagues and fires and political unrest, making the King worried enough to bring back his old friend John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, whom he had banished only a few months before for writing a naughty poem about him. Rochester is brilliant. Perverted, rude and brilliant. The King wants him to be his Shakespeare and write eloquent speeches for him. He knows damn well that Rochester is compelled to destroy or mock everything he touches. He takes the chance.

But “Johnny” as he is known to his cronies- yes, Johnny plays a guy called Johnny- really only wants to hang around in the theatre. The theatre is his drug. This is the only place where he enjoys life.

He takes on a struggling actress named Lizzy Barry and wagers his friends that he can turn her into the most celebrated actress in London. Oh, and also, he makes a mockery of the King in a play commissioned to glorify him to the French ambassador, gets sent away again, and begins rotting to death of various venereal and alcoholic diseases while masquerading as a healer.

Smashing stuff, isn’t it?

I would like to say that I enjoyed this movie but it isn’t meant to be enjoyed...I was both repulsed and fascinated by it. I think it’s stunning. It’s a dirty movie, from the mud, to the naked writhing bodies in the park, to the four letter words. I may have learned a few new ones.

Rochester's eloquently dirty poetry is featured throughout. I have to tell you that there are so many great lines in this movie that it will make your head spin. Some of the dialogue is witty and sharp and funny. Some of it is downright beautiful. Pay attention.

It wouldn’t be quite so impressive without the actors involved in it.

Now I know what you’re all saying, (Pirate) that I’d love Johnny Depp no matter what and that if he read my grocery list I’d rave about it. Well, yeah. Especially.

If you’ve ever doubted this guy’s ability, this role will convince you.

Right from his prologue he is mesmerizing. Intense, haughty, intelligent, and threatening. His accent is perfect. His voice is a low smooth growl. He’s coiled and unpredictable.

I will warn you right now: if you love Johnny for his looks, either don’t watch the Libertine at all, or shut it off after the lewd performance of his play, because he’s not kidding that you won’t like him. He starts off gorgeous, and I do mean gorgeous. Depp the man is aging well, and Rochester is handsome but well worn. With his bedraggled hair and jaded squint, he’s got that Love Me If You Dare look. He is stunning.

But he does not stay that way! I’ve never seen him uglier and it works. He literally rots in front of us. (Sadly, I couldn't find any pictures of his amazing decrepitude.) Some of the most gutsy, visceral performances I’ve seen from him happen here. He's incredible.

Take his speech in the House of Lords: Nothing like a guy powdering his dripping face and hobbling around on crutches to get a point across. (And I wish so much that I could find a picture of that!)

John Malkovich, another one of my favourites, is perfection as Charles II. He’s got the incredibly uppity drawl of royalty and the easy intensity of power. In an earlier stage production, Malkovich played Rochester, but I think he’s perfect as the King who could be mistaken for careless but has the whole thing under control.

The women hold their own against these two men.

Rosamund Pike is steely and elegant as Rochester’s suffering but devoted wife, the aristocratic heiress Elizabeth Malet. He loves her enough to stay married to her but she represents all that traps him: domestic life, rules, the country. (He hates the country. There are no theatres.) He seems compelled uncontrollably to insult and mentally abuse her. She struggles to maintain her composure and dignity.

Samantha Morton is excellent as Lizzy Barry.
She’s pleasant looking but not cookie-cutter-pretty; she’s interesting to look at and fascinating to watch. Her character is the only one in the story who can be anywhere near a match to the impossible Rochester. I think the only time this film comes close to getting soft is in Rochester's confessions to Lizzy...but she never lets the whole scene dissolve into a horrible tear-jerking romance.

Let’s not forget Kelly Reilly as Jane the bluntly dirty talking whore.

Jack Davenport, who I’m becoming more and more enamoured of, has a small role as an actor who has a hard time stomaching Rochester’s “art” (and who also is a runner up to Alan Rickman in the best voice department.)

Don’t miss out on Richard Coyle as Rochester’s servant, Alcock. Get it? All cock? How appropriate.

A young British beauty by the name of Rupert Friend surfaces too, as the young Billy Downs, who is warned of impending doom by Rochester. Before Billy meets his doom though, there's a little scene with the two men looking lovingly into each other’s eyes.

I've known guys like Rochester who were so bored because of their own unbearable intelligence that they had to be unbelievably rude just to get free of the sameness of life; those whose talent is overshadowed by their own tortured soul.

Laurence Dunmore, after a seven year struggle to get this picture made, has achieved a beautiful and disturbing film. From what I've read, the Real Critics didn't like it much, and it didn't exactly burn up the box office. It’s a shame that so few people went to see it. Especially since there are a few Oscar worthy performances here. (Three have been nominated. Come on already.)

I highly recommend that you shake a tail feather down to the video store and get a look at it because it’s worth it. It deserves it.


Lightning Bug's Butt said...

It's in my NetFlix queue!

Life, or Something Like It said...

I can't wait to see this movie. I haven't figured out how to get in the house with out KK watching it. Hmmmm

The Adult in Question said...

I saw a preview for this and couldn't figure out what was going on but now I'm intrigued so i'll have to watch it.

Heidi the Hick said...

I gotta figure out this NetFlix deal. I think I'm missing out on something...

Biddie, very wise to not let KK see it. Maybe when she's older. It'll mess with her head. We can't ruin her Johnny love at this tender age!

KC, I tried not to spoil it for you. It's pretty interesting. Watch it when KK is at her boyfriend's house!

JJ said...

There wasn't a thing about this movie that I didn't like. From opening to end it was just...perfection! (Excellent review, btw!)

Steve Bodio said...

I'll get it-- thanks!

Now I believe you are going to review Jonatan Strange and Mr Norell? Please! It is in my book pile...