WYSHW: The Libertine
For those of you who know me personally, you’ll know that I am admittedly an avid Johnny Depp fan. However if you know me really well, you’ll know that I am able to cast my bias aside in order to produce a critical analysis. This in mind, I want to state that I honestly don’t believe that The Libertine deserved the total critical massacre that it received.
I’ve noticed that the American period film greatly romanticizes whatever era it captures – step outside of the states and you’ll see a much grittier side of the story. Though there are shared notions of aristocratic conflict, there are less women pining for suitors and more sex, drugs and rock and roll – or something as close as possible (in this case, sex, booze and bawdy plays). The Libertine is one of those films: an adaptation of a play by British playwright Stephen Jeffreys, The Libertine is a bio-drama about John Wilmot (Depp), 2nd Earl of Rochester, and his faux pas in the court of King Charles II (John Malkovich).
Being that this film was based on a play, Jeffreys took some liberties and made it a little more theatrical. For instance, the film opens with a charming prologue from Wilmot himself:
Trivia: The film was shot with all natural lighting.
He’s arrogant, snide, and downright nasty – and the man follows through wholeheartedly. (Oddly enough you never see him naked despite how often he talks about shagging and such. Shame.) So if you didn’t to sit through a film about this sort of person, why even bother? Even the trailer is pretty frank about what what’s going to happen. This is where the criticism comes in: yes, he’s nasty and unsympathetic – why did you expect otherwise? This is a portrait piece, nothing more. And if you were expecting some sort of romanticized story, well the 17th century wasn’t exactly pretty (again, the difference between American and European period drama).
What won me over about this film, other than a more, er, “nontraditional” story (which was honestly a relief for me – I paid for a debaucher, not an old school Mr. Darcy), was the performances. Depp, Malkovich, and Samantha Morton all gave great performances, which I think honestly should have deserved more credit than they received. Especially Johnny Depp – no seriously, I’m not being a fangirl here. It is very difficult to rake in empathy for such an unsympathetic character, but he does it so subtly that by the end you just pity the guy as he dies a slow syphilitic death. He was meant for another time and place, being that his work was legitimately ballsy (no pun intended) for the time. I guess the same can be said about the movie: no one expected it to be as gritty and gross so they got caught up in the presentation and forgot about the substance. It’s a possibility anyway.
Next time on WYSHW, a rock and roll vampire flick I’ve been preaching about since I saw the thing.