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‘The Libertine’ 2005/11/30

Posted by Dave in Movies, Reviews.
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I remember hearing or reading a couple of news stories regarding 'The Libertine' — one was that the star, Johnny Depp, was being hounded by fans during filming, and the other was that because of some tax changes by Tony Blair's government, filming in the UK had to be stopped and everyone went abroad (to the Isle of Man in this particular case, if I remember rightly). Ironic/apt.

I had no big preconceptions beforehand, Johnny Depp being in it really does not give anything away, but I did think it appropriate later when I discovered that the film was about the second Earl of Rochester — a man who like Depp was hounded by adoring fans. Rochester was like a popstar back in the mid 1600s. Knowing that John Malkovitch was playing King Charles the second of England & Wales — the restored Stuart monarch — brought some hope that Malkovitch would return something similar to his work years ago in 'Dangerous Liaisons'. Funny to think that the Rochester role would fit Malkovitch better than the King. Hmmm.

Then, once the movie started, I suddenly realised that it was loosely based upon the life of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, one of the most important satirical poets of the 17th century, and courtier who infamously died at 33 as a result of alcoholism and the effects of various diseases.

I then remembered that Rochester is sometimes (fairly) compared to Casanova, and all-too-often (and quite unfairly) compared with the Marquis de Sade — probably because Rochester wrote 'Sodom', a work of very early pornography.

I began to wonder (fret about) where the film may go.

It often surprises people who come across 'Sodom' or even the Rev.Johnathan Swift's raunchy and lewd writings. One has to remember the context of the times — back then it was cruder and ruder, death and disease were everywhere, and the world was changing fast: it was at the start of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the age of science and reason. I thought the movie did a good job of getting across the mud and grim reality.

Samantha Morton I recognised from her 'Herbal Essences TV commercials. Here she played Rochester's love interest, Elizabeth Barry, a failing actress. I personally thought she was the weak-link in the cast. For an actor of Malkovitch's stature, playing the King must have been easy, so to make it more difficult, he did it wearing the worst false nose I have ever seen a make-up artist produce since Depardieu's 'Cyrano'! Johnny Depp acted his socks off; he was in almost every scene, and carried the whole by virtue of his massive screen presence. It was almost a one-man show.

Being a John Malkovitch production, it came as no surprise that the script would be ripe; Malkovitch revels in bawdy talk and lewdity — and this film delivers as much laddish banter as one could possibly ever need from a movie.

Johhny Vegas was good, but under-used. There were times when I found myself wishing the film would follow a different route — I would have cut down much of the love affair with Morton in favour of more fun and banter with Vegas and the thieving servant — maybe more interaction with the drink and ladies? Rochester was a satirist after all!

Having said that, I would also have cut the 'Dr.Bendo' scenes altogether — along with the pornographic play for the French Ambassador — they were incongruous and smacked of 'trying too hard to be comedy' or attempting to shock or something. The screenplay could have got across all the same points (and more besides) without these senseless departures.

I also would have dealt more/better with Rochester's marriage, giving his wife more of a role.

The debauchery enjoyed by the court and the post-puritan restoration was hinted at, and could have been funnier or more fun. This film was darker than it perhaps should have been… yes, yes, I know it is a moral tale, and we have a duty to show how bad having a good time can be on the health.

I am not suggesting that the film become a Brian Rix Farce or turn into a 'Carry-On' or anything like that… simply that it could have shown the attraction of the lifestyle, the fun and the carefree, libertine mood — the balancing seriousness could easily have been the court wit and court politics, the poetry, the plays, the speeches and references to pin down the reign and period better.

The result of the overstressing of foul language and lewd behaviour was that the truth of the times and the people was compromised.

I personally felt that the minimalisation of the Catholic heir issue was not enough, and that Rochester and the restored Stuart King were involved in far more turbulent times than the script suggested with the ornamental passing line: we were treated to a single mention of Sir Christopher Wren's plans for St Paul's Cathedral — a single mention of the Black Death, Plague, and a single mention of the Great Fire of London. Pah! Hardly enough to give the viewer any gist of the life and times of Rochester and Charles's Court.

Rochester's writings were notoriously angry at the shallowness of the times and the restored court, he demanded fidelity and depth, seeking intellectual company and rewarding sophostication without much success — which is usually considered to be the main reason why he turned to drink and debauchery in the first place. This film does not bring any of this forward, and I think it fails the man and his memory for that. The movie showed the King time and again seeking out Rochester, forgiving him and asking him for favours and advice — without explanation nor qualification. One must suppose therefore that the screenwriter intended the audience to realise that while Rochester is merely depicted as an idle drunk pervert, there is more to him because of the King's attention.

The famous sundail (the most expensive instrument in the world) was shown in the film, but Rochester did not smash it to bits (maybe this was edited out?)

The film did not show some important things about Rochester — I mean, I didn't know beforehand about him and Elizabeth Barry ( a main theme of this film), but I certainly was very well aware that although Rochester was was one of the most famous alcoholics and womanisers in history– he famously repented, changed his ways, gave up the drink and became a good clean-living Christian shortly before his death at just 33. None of which was involved in this film — and that is tragedy if not a travesty!

We all know that it was under the restored libertine court that actresses were allowed for the first time. This (and the whole Barry strand) is not what Rochester was about — his involvement was undoubted, but the impact or importance of actresses or of Barry on Rochester's life I think was either made-up or over-stressed just to continue feminist revisionism. Don't get me wrong either, I'm not saying Elizabeth Barry was unimportant — she was the first famous actress in all the world — I am just not so convinced that she and Rochester had the relationship suggested by this movie.

That said, and all-in-all, it was a good film — in it's own right, and for people who have never heard of Rochester or who know little about this historical period… however, the subject-matter and the script mean that no way would you be able to take your parents or your children to see it, and it's not one for a first-date either, this makes it a real bother. Depp's acting was great, as were the sets, cinematography, and production values. The script, Malkovitch's nose, and Morton let the side down, and for people who know a bit more, the screenplay was the biggest failure.

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1. REVIEWS 2005 « davedevine - 2008/12/08

[…] REVIEWS 2005 December 31, 2005 Movie review — The Libertine: 2005/11/30/the-libertine/ […]


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