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The Libertine

He didn’t resist temptation. He pursued it.  

Year: 2004 
Running Time:
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (XWide) 
Certificate: BBFC 18 Cert – Not suitable for under 18s 
Subtitles: The level of subtitling in this film is unknown to WSC 
Directed by Unknown 
Starring: Unknown  
An image from The Libertine

Director: Laurence Dunmore

Starring: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamond Pike

After almost a decade of sexual laxity under Charles II (Malkovich), the “hangover” is indeed beginning to set in. The King pardons his favorite, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (Depp), having banned him from court, in order to commission a play to glorify his reign. On his return to London, however, the poet and titular libertine Wilmot, has other ideas. The film watches, in all its gritty syphilitic horror, as Wilmot's self-destructs, debauching his way into a premature grave.

Depp provides yet another surprising addition to his existing curriculum vitae of unconventional leads. Indeed, his first lines in the film, spoken as a private confession to the audience, are “You are not going to like me”; a challenge I cannot imagine many other Hollywood leads presenting their fans. His performance, certainly one of the most powerful and difficult of his career, is utterly absorbing and credibly human. Depp’s portrayal of the simultaneously repellant and seductive Rochester is complemented by other strong supporting roles, particularly the actress (and Wilmot's protégé/mistress) Elizabeth Barry, played by Morton, who demonstrates tremendous energy and versatility in her performance, hinting at the hidden vulnerability of her character. Appearances by Johnny Vegas and Richard Coyle help lighten the generally gloomy mood with moments of genuine humor.

In contrast to other depiction of Restoration England (particularly those offered in recent years by Michael Hoffman and Joe Wright), Laurence Dunmore (like Rochester himself) exposes the corrupt, seedy underbelly of life under the Merry Monarch. Compared to other Charles II (for instance Rufus Sewell's recent turn), John Malkovich comes across more slimy than sexy. Dunmore’s filming style (often shot in grainy candle-light, with lots of shifting close-ups) gives much of the film a claustrophobic feel, and evokes his vision of late 17th Century London as a murky world of mud and disease. The unremitting frankness with which Rochester's life-style and demise is laid bare before us can sometimes be genuinely shocking, but the overall effect is never gratuitous. However, the strongest thing about the film, I thought, was Stephen Jeffreys’ script, which gives the film both depth and lightness, and engaging the audience with a compelling depiction of people struggling to communicate with one another.

Ben Chisnall

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Screenings of this film:

2005/2006 Summer Term (35mm)