Toward its end, it's a mess of almost epic proportions, and it's nowhere near as vulgar and shocking as it would like to think it is. But The Libertine is riveting nevertheless, right from its opening monologue: Johnny Depp, as the debauched 17th-century English poet and notorious rake John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, growls directly into the camera about what a scoundrel he is and how he does not want you to like him. It's gripping in a lot of ways: in its theatrical intimacy (the movie is, indeed, based on the play by Stephen Jeffreys), in the paradoxical toe-curling thrill of hearing Johnny Depp say to the "ladies" that he is "up for it" all the time. It's paradoxical because, of course, Depp is a sex bomb about whom all sorts of women, and some men, would find themselves in agreement over his extreme lickability, and yet he makes the promise about his up-for-it-iveness a threat, and not a particularly pleasant one, either. Depp's Wilmot is creepy and alluring at the same time. which, while it might detract from Wilmot's appeal, only adds to that of the supernaturally talented Depp.
If only the rest of the movie could keep up with Depp's astonishing ability to dominate the screen and make you his cinematic bitch. Director Laurence Dunmore, in his feature film debut, relies a tad too much on low-light shooting and the resultant graininess to signify Wilmot's corruption and the general depravity of the culture of his world. Sure, the script (Jeffreys adapted his own play) features such delicious bon mots as Wilmot's "In Paris, fornication with strangers in the street is compulsory," but the film as a whole never gels enough to make you feel like you're visiting such a depraved place. There's one scene that manages to overcome the almost unavoidable conviction that sex, the enjoyment of sex, and an appreciation for jokes about sex were invented in the 20th century — a sense that even the most enlightened and educated often cannot shake — and that is an admittedly hot scene in which Wilmot and his wife, the luscious heiress Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike) engage in some very naughty and very nice hanky panky in their carriage. But mostly, there's not enough genuine raunch in The Libertine's bawdiness to rise above the level of transitory shock for shock's sake.
Wilmot was certainly into shock, and there is a certain pleasure to be had in the film's rather gleeful depiction of the joy he took in tweaking even his benefactor, King Charles II (John Malkovich, doing his fairly standard but still effective weirdo routine). Charles imagined he would have his Shakespeare in Wilmot, a talent who would define and embody Charles's reign as the Bard did for Elizabeth, and perhaps he did: Wilmot wrote a grand opera for the king that was pretty racy.
One intuits that there's perhaps something important hovering under the relationship Wilmot forces himself into with the actress Elizabeth Barry (the always extraordinary Samantha Morton); it's not a romantic or sexual relationship, or at least not primarily, but one of teacher and student, as he pushes her toward her own discovery of what it means to be a truly great actress. Maybe it's meant to have something to do with the connection between art in all its many forms and the basest human urges, a suggestion that to make art is not to engage in something rarefied and abstruse but something primeval and vital to survival?
But that's just me grasping at straws, struggling to find something that isn't there. When Wilmot says things like "I am the cynic of our golden age," I long to be able to connect that to our world today. And I can't.