Friday, 21 July 2006

The Libertine (2005)

Not even John Malkovich’s prosthetic member can keep Johnny Depp in the shadows!

When audiences watch The Libertine in the cinema, it is likely that some will notice the original compositions by Michael Nyman, who wrote the music for The Piano and Gattaca. For a period drama, you’d expect lots of fluff pieces. Some easy listening from that era, maybe a few gigues and sarabandes, all mildly agreeable, none at all memorable. Yet Nyman’s score, ever uncompromising, delivers far much than expected. The music in The Libertine is a authentic blend and reworking of Baroque, Renaissance, and minimalist styles; strangely old and new at the same time.

It will also be more than likely that the audience will notice the film’s cinematography. Again, for a period drama, you’d expect lots of frilly costumes, opulent sets and the like. Yet Laurence Dunmore rejects this Hollywoodised version of Ye Olde Englande to give us an uncompromising and historically informed portrayal of the 1660s. That means without the invention of modern plumbing and municipal sewage systems, London was literally covered in excrement (euphemistically known as "mud" and referred as such to the faint of heart). People waded through that stuff all the time in those days, and any expensively bedecked Cavalier gentleman, even a rake like John Wilmott, the 2nd Earl of Rochester (we’ll come to him in a moment), will get his attire soiled even on a stroll in town. And what better to capture this dank and dirty city on film than with a handheld camera, with grainy film? Everything old is new again, and very appropriately so.

It is entirely fitting then, that Johnny Depp plays the role of John Wilmott like a rock star. It is after all the Restoration, where Puritan mores and strictures have been overthrown and replaced with a creative flowering in the arts and sciences – and yes, even in sex. In the dizzy, bawdy age of the Restoration, Rochester was its shining star. Famed for his sharp tongue, acerbic wit, killer one-liners, and his riotous antics with the Rat Pack of his age, the earl was a dramatist and a skilled writer of profane verse or what we might call "naughty poems", except he writes them with such cleverness and style that they become art. He was also a close confidant and court favourite of Charles II (John Malkovich with a huge appendage), except during the times when he was exiled (but never for too long) for writing too satirical and bawdy a poem of the Merry Monarch. Did I mention that Rochester, like all good Cavaliers, was a hard drinking, dissolute rake? This man is sex on legs, and as Depp warns so charmingly in the prologue, "I am up for it, ladies. That is not a boast or an opinion, it is bone hard medical fact." The man is so very naughty, and yet so very funny. No wonder everyone loves him so.

Everyone loves Rochester! Alas, no party goes on forever, and after a spot of plagues and a Great Fire, even the Merry Monarch, the greatest rake in England, must put on a show of sobriety. And so must Rochester, for Charles II wishes that his close friend reform into a statesman and lend his oratory skills in Parliament, and also to write and stage a play that will impress the new French ambassador and make Rochester his very own Shakespeare. For a perverse man who works diligently at being dissolute, this extraordinary conferment is the beginning of a death sentence.

Everyone loves Rochester! Even his lawfully wedded wife Elizabeth Mallet (Rosamund Pike), who fell in love with him the moment he tried to abduct her in her girlhood. She doesn’t mind the philandering, the 5 years of constant drunkenness, or his dalliances at the whorehouse. Theirs is a love so complex and absolute that she is more offended by Rochester’s unnatural fascination with the playhouse (the panoramic shots of which are the only occasions of non-handheld camerawork in the movie) and his very chaste mentorship with Elizabeth Barry, the legendary actress of Restoration theatre, who was known at that time as the worst stage actress alive.

The Libertine is an account of Rochester’s physical, mental and literary explosions; the final 5 years of his life. Rock stars have overdoses, the 17th century had syphilis. And no self-respecting historically informed picture will be complete without showing at least one person with a face half-eaten by disease. And that would be Rochester’s. Would it be any surprising that a libertine would waste and die from exhaustion and excess? Would it be any surprising that a libertine will continue fighting for the experience of his life, even then? Or that despite his badness, we’d still continue loving his genius and company?

Even a very incensed and offended Charles II forgives (something went horribly wrong in his commissioned play), because Johnny Depp delivers a speech that eclipses John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man. For that speech, and for his performance in The Libertine, Johnny Depp really deserves not just an Oscar nomination, but the statuette itself.

The Libertine is utterly memorable because the brilliant conspiracy of Nyman’s score, Dunmore’s cinematography, and a rude and funny script by Stephen Jeffreys, who also wrote the original stage play.


Did you know John Malkovich played the part of Rochester in the 1995 stage version of The Libertine?
Watch out for John Malkovich’s prosthetic member!
Watch out for Jeffreys sneaking in actual poems and writings of Rochester in the movie.
Listen carefully for all the naughty puns and double and triple entendres.
Rochester’s manservant Alcock is more hilarious than Baldrick!

First published at incinemas on 27 July 2006

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