John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp), is always the smartest guy in the room. He’s also the most impatient and deliberately obnoxious. And so, this Restoration playwright and poet is both surrounded by wigs and powder and lusty laughter, but also isolated. The Libertine follows Wilmot’s exploits, up until his exceedingly ugly and noseless death from syphilis at 33. Clever and colorful, he opens and closes the film with monologues: “Let me be frank at the commencement,” he says. “You will not like me. Gentlemen will be jealous, ladies repelled.”
John describes himself as an ever-ready lover (for ladies, certainly, though he assures men that he’s “up for that as well”). His cocky performance is calculated, as he means to expose social limits by transgressing them. “I do not want you to like me,” he says. While it would appear the film is offering up yet another version of Johnny Depp in flouncy period costume, John is not nearly so spry or self-satisfied as Jack Sparrow. Rather, he is increasingly self-doubting and belligerent, irritated with his fellow debaucherers (who can hardly keep up) and philosophical about what it means to transgress. As the consequences of his rule-breaking become clearer to him, the violations themselves become less so; if violations only reiterate the rules, then what sense do violations bear?
Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his 1994 play, The Libertine is episodic and strange, denoting the temperament of its subject. Featuring scads of foul language (emulating the real Rochester’s work), it assumes a bleak and dismal look, evoking John’s environment certainly, but also his internal state. Comprised of quick-shifty camerawork and raggedy editing, muddy messes and gloomy interiors, this look is more familiar in small-budget independent films (which this is) than carefully costumed melodramas (which this also is). So snarky and entertaining in his excesses as to be a sometime favorite of King Charles II (prosthetic-nosed John Malkovich), John makes the most of his status, as long as it lasts. But even the king decides John goes too far eventually, no longer providing political or other protections. At this point, John is liable for legal persecutions, and so, general drubbing and renouncement by friends and foes alike.
He has plenty of both. John’s legendary loving leaves him equally open to worship (or, at least profound appreciation) and odium (this primarily by cuckolded husbands). Always looking to conquer new territory, he’s caught up short when he spots the actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) one evening at the theater. Suddenly, John is suddenly struck by another notion, that he is capable of love. To prove himself, he means to help her refine her art. “I think I can make you an actress of truth, not a creature of artifice,” he says (as much as he blurs the line between these concepts, the offer appears disingenuous and sincere at once). She’s rightly suspicious, having heard his reputation: “I think you want power over me,” she declares.
At first it does seem that John sees her as an extension of himself, but then the film touches on a more hackneyed strategy: her beauty and sense of purpose affect him, even elevate him. And so John—as character and narrative element—is rather caught in a dilemma, to persist in the awful behavior that makes him so unlikable or pursue redemption, in whatever form. The film chooses for him the redemptive angle, though the character simultaneously resists such conventional reading.
John’s understanding of the relationship with Mrs. Barry soon extends beyond the usual playwright’s design to bed his lead actress: he devotes long days and evenings to her instruction, smoothing rough edges and calming her overwrought style, to the point that she does indeed become the toast of London (the notion that the rabble playgoers might recognize “truth” rather flies in the face of his assumption that consumers of his work are by definition ignorant).
The romance with Mrs. Barry upsets John’s young heiress wife Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike), though she remains largely isolated at their estate in the country while he gallivants in the city. When he at last returns home in horrid physical disarray—his face wrapped in gauze, his efforts to drink himself to death vividly visible and malodorous—Elizabeth seems momentarily inclined to take him back (though she does realize, “I am ever your last resort!”). Elizabeth offers to nurse him in his final hours. Harsh even when it hurts him (or especially when it hurts him), John rejects her, furious to be weak, and so dug into himself that he can’t see outside.
While film’s grim end suggests that John is paying some odious moralized price for his sensual excesses, his narration and Depp’s canny performance argue otherwise. The Libertine neither judges not celebrates John. It pretends to represent his point of view, through direct address and subjective cameras. And yet, this perspective remains elusive, and more powerful for it. How can you imagine what was going through John’s head as he found himself slipping ever further into syphilitic dementia and misery, as his body betrayed his spirit and his desires hovered over him like so many cruel reminders of a wanton, delightful youth?
At least the film spares you the specter of John in full-on regret mode. He remains resolute even as his figure and face quite literally disintegrate, miserable and stubbornly poetic. “I look upon a pinhead,” he laments, “and see angels dancing.” Perhaps, but the movie suggests that his visions are at once more mundane and more sensational, self-inflating imagery that allows him to withstand condemnation. The trouble for John Wilmot, The Libertine proposes, lies at last in a lack of imagination. Brilliantly contentious and prolific, he is nonetheless stuck inside a system of delineated by opposites: law and outlaw, conformity and dissipation. Pitting art and “truth” against small thinking, John can’t see that his transgressions only reinforce that very system.