The most versatile and indefatigable actor in American film.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"You will not like me." Second Earl of Rochester in prologue.
And you won't, but The Libertine is the best representation of a character in degeneration in recent memory, except for the Cheney hunting incident. Johnny Depp is Johnny Wilmot, the 17th century second Earl of Rochester, poet and predator, perhaps the most notorious womanizer after Casanova. Unlike Heath Ledger's recently soft interpretation of a finally-in-love Casanova, Depp's notorious Johnny changes before our eyes, as if, in a Dantean irony or Wildean portrait, he disintegrates as he finds true passion.
Which is Samantha Morton's Lizzie Barry, a struggling restoration-era actress whom the earl makes into London's best thespian but not his best lover. Perhaps King Charles II (John Malkovich), he of the restored monarchy, loves the earl more, as Charles enjoins him to create literature in his honor to strengthen his fiscal position, especially with France. The resulting pornographic play seals Rochester's doom.
Malkovich underplays the needy monarch while Depp adds depth to his repertoire of eccentric characters. That Depp can perform Oscar-worthy while making several other films within the same year is testimony to Depp's nomination for most versatile and indefatigable actor in American film.
After all the stylized low-key lighting and grey walls and streets, evoking an unhealthy and unsavory urban street life, the portrayal of a rich and gifted man's boredom with his many loves and life itself (Dr, Johnson's exhortation about being bored with London equivalent to being bored with life comes to mind), we are left with a poignant portrayal of a libertine learning too late about the dangers of lust and alcohol and the elusiveness of love.
Alexander Melman's cinematography capitalizes on the grainy shadows from candles to evoke clandestine, deathlike perversity. This is not your Weinstein/Miramax high-key Shakespeare in Love; it's somber Weinstein romance of a dark kind.
"Do you like me?" asks the earl several times in his epilogue. I surely liked Depp's performance; I had a hard time liking or even envying the syphilitic, depressed romancer.
Well done first-time director Laurence Dunmore!
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE 90.5's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm and on demand anytime. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com