Directed by Laurence Dumore, starring Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike, Rupert Friend, Johnny Vegas, Kelly Reilly, Trudi Jackson, Richard Coyle, Tom Hollander, Jack Davenport and Francesca Annis.
In the character of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, Johnny Depp explains in a direct-to-camera monologue that by the end of his story you will not like him very much. Famed as a poet, among other things, Rochester (as he is affectionately known to his friends) cares little for the esteem of others, or so he would have everyone believe. But deep underneath his flamboyant facade he is a creature who craves attention and strives with everything in him to push social boundaries to breaking point in order to get this attention, whether it be in the form of admiration or disgust.
A notorious ladies man and drunk, Rochester likes to rub everyone up the wrong way. But in the words of King Charles II (Malkovich), who often times looks to him for dramatic inspiration (with unexpected results): "It's fun being against things but there comes a time when one must be for things."
In this movie set in 1660s England, adapted for the screen by Stephen Jeffreys from his own play, we follow Rochester on his travels from fame to ill repute - observing him as a wild outcast, a social delight, a famed wordsmith and a treasured lover to any number of woman at any given time, but mostly to his wife Elizabeth (Pike), his muse Lizzie (Morton) and his brothel maid Jane (Reilly).
Essentially 'The Libertine' is a straightforward portrait of a man who once described himself as "the wildest and most fantastical odd man alive", and in that lies the predominant curiosity of the film. What unfolds is not a hugely dramatic spectacle that wildly encapsulates the controversy and obstinate nature that was the cruel, yet somehow forgivable, Rochester. Rather, it is a quite tame take on an absolutely extraordinary individual (most likely due to budget constraints).
The Earl of Rochester/Wilmot that we meet during the scenes of this movie is utterly captivating. Foremost he is a charmer and a rogue. But it is his needy, pathetic and honest disposition that endears him. He sets outrageous standards, casts aside the concern of those closest to him, but ultimately comes out of it all the loser, in his endeavours in the theatre and of the heart.
Depp plays the eccentric character of Rochester with an obvious ease, delighting in his odd personality and adding a spark to the portrayal of a man who treaded the fine line between genius and madman. In a tale that was probably more effective on the stage, he is the deciding factor in making it work – glossing over the crude sexual references and borderline graphic content with a charming, inimitable presence. However, the characters (the significant ones played by most of the cast of the recent 'Pride & Prejudice') that surround him are often lacking – with the writing seeming to favour stereotypes over content (most notably in Johnny Vegas' performance). Samantha Morton is an exception, playing the strong-willed, if broken-spirited, Lizzie with a true sense of character.
It's debatable whether the ambience set for the movie really works towards fulfilling its full potential. Murky and dull from the outset, the film makes little enough use of its surrounds, so that they could easily go pretty much unnoticed throughout. It's mainly shot with hand-held cameras, which makes for shaky, unsettling viewing in parts, but then again could perhaps be considered to add physically to the moral tone of the movie, as it jumps from high moral ground to scandalous revelations.
Depp concludes his take on the life of Rochester with another monologue, in which he re-enforces his initial theory. "Do you like me now?" he asks, the irony being you will most probably end up liking him very much.