May 18, 2012

Queer Review: The Libertine (2004)

The Libertine
Director: Laurence Dunmore
Writer: Stephen Jeffreys (Based upon his own play)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Paul Ritter, John Malkovich, Stanley Townsend, Rosamund Pike, Samantha Morton, Tom Hollander, Johnny Vegas, Richard Coyle

This pretentious biopic of debauched libertine John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, features mesmerizing performances from Johnny Depp and Samantha Morton, but unfortunately thanks to poor directorial choices/style, turns out to be a bore.

The story begins with King Charles II (John Malkovich) asking John Wilmot (Johnny Depp) to return to London after having been previously exiled. Wilmot does so and Charles asks Wilmot to write a play to honor the Kings' legacy and leadership. Wilmot agrees and meanwhile starts a romance with actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). His wife (Rosamund Pike) used to the Earl engaging in such affairs, doesn't mind. When the play finally opens, King Charles is enraged to find himself being openly mocked and Wilmot flees London, and spends the rest of the movie dyeing of a mysterious venereal disease.

The Queering
The most effective sequence of The Libertine is the opening monologue, in which Johnny Depp, set against a dark backdrop, brazenly tells the audience that "you will not like me". Too bad the rest of the film fails to live up to the promising beginning.

The subject matter is also promising. Wilmot, like any good libertine playwrite, told stories with the lewdest of subject matter and mocked any and all authority, even if that authority was the one commissioning him. Johnny Depp gives one of the braver performances of his career and Samantha Morton, as the upstart actress Wilmont falls for, manages to almost outshine him at times. The dialogue is brimming with wit, even if it's a tad unrealistic at times. Nobody in any era was ever that flowery when they spoke.

So where does the production go wrong? Unfortunately first time director Laurence Dunmore presents the entire production in as dreary a manor as possible. Every scene is filmed with little light and and with the most drab colors. This does a good job at highlighting the filthiness of 17th Century London, but it causes the whole production to become dreary and depressing rather quickly. The final third of the film, which features Wilmot's downward spiral from a venereal disease that slowly destroys his face, may make the audience wonder if getting syphilis might represent a less painful experience than sitting through this film.

Than there is the issue of the straitening out of John Wilmot. In his writings, Wilmot frequently made heterosexuality out to be inferior to same sex activities. One would never know this from watching The Libertine. The opening monologue teases the audience here too, with Depp brazenly announcing his willingness to engage in intercourse with the dudes in the audience. After that, Wilmot's queerness becomes entirely a matter of subtext. That about sums up my opinion of the movie, that it is entirely a sub-textual tease.

The experience of watching The Libertine is like suffering all of the consequences of a libertine lifestyle (painful and embarrassing STD's, liver failure from alcohol consumption, etc.) but getting to enjoy none of the benefits. In other words, masochists are the only ones who should seek this out.

The Rating


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