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The Libertine Movie Poster

The Libertine

Genre: Drama
Rated: Not Rated
Directed by
: Laurence Dunmore
Starring: Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton, John Malkovich, Rosamund Pike
Released by: Miramax

In Short: Johnny Depp and Samantha Morton play out the on- and off-stage drama between Lord Rochester, the 17th century's biggest rake (and one of England's brightest wits) and Elizabeth Barry, an unknown actress whom Rochester turns into a star.

Rakish Rochester
The Libelous Life of a Libertine
By Veronica Marian

John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, was a knave, a poet, a visionary, a madman and above all, a libertine. His philandering lifestyle, love of the theater and bawdy writings embodied the new social (and often, sexual) freedoms that ravaged England as Charles II restored the monarchy in the late 17th century.

These themes provide the background for “The Libertine,” but don’t expect the movie to be just a compilation of orgies, lewd humor and vulgar speech. All these are indeed present, but “The Libertine” is more than a superficial look at a historic period of morals in transition; it is an examination of a victim of the times. Rochester was an acclaimed poet whose talent was so widely recognized that Charles II (played bitingly by John Malkovich), who had previously thrown him in the Tower of London for disobedience, personally asked him to write speeches in favor of the monarchy to win public support.

Laurence Dunmore’s directorial debut examines one man’s demise from court darling to political outcast. It also shows the horrible effects of a life as promiscuous as Rochester’s during a time of no antibiotics. We cringe seeing Johnny Depp’s face mauled by syphilis, and pity him as he is rendered helpless, friendless, misunderstood and despised. His only friend in the end is his faithful, however wronged, wife (Rosamund Pike), with whom we agree when she says, “I don’t want you to die, I want you to live, and live differently!” Even Rochester’s young protégé Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton), a no-name actress whom Rochester turns into the best in England, abandons him as she discovers the spotlight. It is his relationship with Barry that the movie concentrates on, as it was one of the major turning points in his life. As Rochester helps Barry rise to fame, he becomes smitten with her talent, independence and ambition, perhaps recognizing in her a kindred spirit.

The movie’s look is grimy, dark, muddy, overall un-pretty, a perfect fit to its dark subject. Shaky camera work and uncomfortable close-ups are at times hard to take, but they do add to the overall atmosphere of intimacy and physical discomfort that are so much a part of the film. Johnny Depp’s swagger is a bit reminiscent of Jack Sparrow, but we will forgive him as the two characters share the libertine characteristic. Depp manages to bring a softness to an otherwise unlikable character, having us root for Rochester even as we must condemn him. Meanwhile, Morton, who shares much of the stage time with Depp, is strong and abrasive in her portrayal of Lizzie Barry, the Galatea to Rochester’s Pygmalion.

(Updated: 01/23/08 NJ)

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