John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, portrayed with the usual playful dementia by Johnny Depp, speaks directly to the camera in the first scene of “The Libertine.” He says that in the story of his life that is about to be presented, “You will not like me.” How right he is.
A film with an unlikable protagonist — and John is a complete rotter, not just a philanderer but an abusive jerk and mean-spirited alcoholic — has an uphill battle to begin with, and “The Libertine” is saddled with an additional burden: It doesn’t have a point, either.
It tells John’s story, beginning in 1675 under the jolly reign of good King Charles II (John Malkovich), with a certain sly charm and vulgar whimsy, but with no central purpose. Episodes from John’s ribald life are recounted; he eventually catches an especially ugly case of syphilis and almost literally falls apart; he dies. At the end, when he asks us, “Do you like me now?,” his tune has changed, and now he seems to hope we do. Yet the film has given us no reason to. We certainly don’t feel sorry for a bastard like him, flesh-eating syphilis or not. (This makes two films in a row for Johnny Depp where he reminds us of Michael Jackson.)
John was a real person, a bawdy poet and playwright who was alternately a friend to, and thorn in the side of, King Charles II. Wikipedia tells me he is credited with being the author of the first piece of pornography ever produced on a printing press, which I guess is like being the first person to post dirty pictures on the Internet in that he probably had no idea how well the idea would take off. He ran with a merry crew of debauchers, many of them fellow writers, and was the life of any party, especially if that party had sex and alcohol (and honestly, what good party doesn’t?).
All of this is conveyed quite vividly in the film, directed by first-timer Laurence Dunmore from Stephen Jeffreys’ play (which Jeffreys himself adapted). John has a wealthy wife, Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike), whom he leaves in the country most of the time so he can cat around London with his many mistresses, misters and whores. He takes an actress named Mrs. Barry (Samantha Morton) under his wing and coaches her to stardom, while also carrying on an intimate personal relationship with her. Who does he get syphilis from? Open the phone book and pick a name at random.
Depp specializes in odd-duck roles, of course, and you can see why he picked this one. The Earl of Rochester is an eccentric bon vivant who eventually becomes pustulant and prone to ineffective bladder control. He’s as devil-may-care as Capt. Jack Sparrow, and as licentious as Hunter S. Thompson. That Depp has not played John Wilmot before now is just an accident of fate.
What he can’t help is the film’s vulgar uselessness. John’s character arc is scant and rather precipitously realized (think death-bed conversion), and no one else’s persona is given more than a passing glance. Everyone seems to love John Wilmot, but darned if I can figure out why. Maybe they see something I don’t, or that the movie fails to show us.
C (1 hr., 54 min.; )