The only word I can think of to describe The Libertine is “smugliness.” Now I realize this word does not exist, so let me explain: I use it to describe a film that is smugly in love with its own ugliness. Why invent new words to describe The Libertine? Surely words like awful, wretched, torturous and incompetent could be applied (and they could, trust me), so why get fancy with descriptions? The only answer I can give you is that this film is so bad, so completely and utterly horrible, that it made me want to invent a new language in order to fully categorize how much I hated it.
So, why waste the effort? I have already lost nearly two hours of my life to the craptastic atrocity that is The Libertine, why waste more time on the review? This should be the easiest, shortest critique I have ever written: It’s bad. Don’t see it. Five words and the job is done. Not so fast. My fear is that if I am too brief, some innocent civilian may wander into a theater and watch The Libertine because I did not fully elaborate on how soul-killingly terrible it really is. So, Movie Snobs, I won’t let you down.
Let’s begin with the script, by Stephen Jeffreys, based on his play of the same name. Jeffreys documents (and I use that term loosely) the life of John Wilmot (played here by Johnny Depp), the Earl of Rochester whose cynicism, lack of morals and outlandish behavior put him at odds with King Charles II (John Malkovich) during the Restoration in late 17 th century England. When not drinking and wenching, the Earl takes an interest in actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) in whom he sees great potential. The story of the film is harder to discern because the writer himself doesn’t seem to know. Is it a historical romance, a story of sexual intrigue, a political drama? Jeffreys apparently doesn’t know so he gives us a little bit of everything as the film wanders around aimlessly for 100 thoroughly boring minutes.
Jeffreys is not the sole culprit. Indeed, in the title role, Johnny Depp seems so intent on showing us what a creep Rochester is, that we never have any reason to care about what happens to him. I have never been a big fan of Depp’s. I know many consider him to be our generation’s Brando, but I am not among them. I find his acting to be extremely mannered and artificial (cases in point: his incredibly overrated work in Pirates of the Caribbean and his weird, creepy mincing in the otherwise good Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Depp’s trademarks are all here: the arched eyebrows, the rolling eyes, the over-enunciated, didn’t-my-vocal-coaching-pay-off English accent, and the melodramatic gesticulation. He camps around, trying desperately to chew the scenery. Late in the story, when Rochester is wracked with syphilis, Depp screams and spits mightily, decked out in makeup that (along with his Restoration wig) make him look eerily like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
As over-the-top as Depp is, his costar Morton is completely catatonic. Morton (who somehow got Oscar nods for her work in Sweet and Lowdown and In America) is a drippy bore, completely unconvincing as one of the biggest female star of the period. Morton appears to be suffering from J.J.L.S., or Jennifer Jason Leigh Syndrome—a catchy disease wherein actors think sulking and mumbling equals a great performance. Equally dull is John Malkovich as the King. Malkovich (who played Depp’s part on stage 10 years ago) is one of the film’s executive producers, yet whatever passion he has for the project is left off screen. It’s as if he and Morton were sharing the same bottle of Valium throughout production. Given the material, I don’t blame them.
Laurence Dunmore’s direction does none of these actors any favors. The film is grainy and murky, with washed out colors that makes the entire cast look like corpses. The bad lighting also hinders the believability of the forty-something Depp playing a 28 year-old. Furthermore, Dunmore clearly doesn’t know how to use a camera to frame his action. During what I think is supposed to be a climactic monologue by Depp, the handheld camera keeps going in and out of focus. I am not making this up.
Ultimately, The Libertine isn’t even fun-bad like Showgirls—which is full of unintentional laughs—it’s just tiring, depressing and infuriating. Films like Stage Beauty and Restoration have dealt with similar ideas about this period of history in a much more interesting fashion. Leaving Las Vegas gave us an antihero we could root for despite his depressing life and personal demons. All The Libertine left me with was anger that the newly formed Weinstein Company (fronted by the founders of Miramax) had wasted its resources on this junk while, somewhere, a better film didn’t get made because of it.
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