Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 16, 2006 8:38 pm 
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[Published on Cinescene.]

More falsely romanticized Eng. Lit.

Libertine is about John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, the Restoration rake and poet, played by Johnny Depp, whom most of the people in the movie address as "Johnny." Did he feel right at home? This is an intentionally dark, vile, obscene picture of the wild, literarily brilliant post-Puritan interlude and one of its lesser known, more postumously famous literary figures, who lived quietly with his wife (Rosamund Pike) and children in the country, drank himself to death in town, and had a deathbed conversion. Somewhere in between, we don't know when or why or how, he found time to write great, if scurillous poetry. Libertine is quite literally dark, since it is shot almost entirely in candlelight. It is the life (and death) of Rochester (he only lived to be 35, died of syphilis) and focuses on certain inevitable biographical things, mainly, since he spent little time as far as we can see actually writing, there are: his debauchery; his relations with: his wife, whom he professed to love but left in the country; George Etheridge (Tom Hollander, acceptable here but not as good as in the Joe Wrights Pride and Prejudice) the Restoration playwright, and others of that circle; Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton), a young actress of the stage whom he helped make famous, and loved; Rose (Trudi Jackson), a whore who cared for him; his suitably named servant, Alcock (Richard Coyle); and most importantly for his survival, King Charles II (John Malkovich, logically cast here but not at his wicked best as in [i]Dangerous Liaisons [/i]or The Talented Mr. Ripley), with whom he fought but whom he ultimately championed.

This film may bring to mind (though it's not very memorable) Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty starring Billy Crudup, the filmed story of Ned Kynaston, the last of the female impersonators at this period when women could play women again, as Lizzie does. Both films share a certain claustrophobic slightness. Libertine is at times terrifyingly edgy, or tries to be, with its dirty talk and pissing and pantomimes with giant phalluses, but it fails as a representation of the period because it doesn't grasp that these men were fops and wits. Dunsmore and crew (who are working from an adaptation of his stage play by Stephen Jeffreys) should perhaps have looked more closely at some good English productions of Restoration plays like Wycherly's The Country Wife or Sheridan's The School for Scandal, She Would If She Could (by Etheridge himself) or Congreve's The Way of the World. When the men converse, their lines should ring; they should be snappy, timed for maximum effect and delivered with the confidence and snottiness of the true social extrovert/snob. They should put ironic, snotty English on every phrase; they should speak for an audience and their timing should be perfect. They should draw laughs. None of this. The Restoration was a bright period, a time of new hope and freedom, not a descent into some dark abyss of debauchery. It was superficial and fun and wit came first.

Instead this is a romanticization, a Tom Jones-ification (à la Tony Richerdson) of a period that was, in fact, anti-romantic in the extreme. In its own different manner it is as bad this way as Joe Thomas' Pride and Prejudice, which in Anthony Lane's phrase "Brontesized" Jane Austen. But that was met with rapture by most at least in North America, whereas Libertine is receiving lukewarm reviews and stunned or bored audience response.

All right, these men may have been dirty (the film has them walking through muck, and after Rochester gets syphilis he is covered with sores and pisses on himself) but they were also elegant, elegant in the extreme. The clothes are great, and probably accurate, but they lack the effete foppish delicacy of gentlemen of the time that the plays mimic and satirize. This film is neither witty nor funny; it's raucous, passionate, and sad. And very obscene. That may be Rochester, but he should be shown more in the context of the time, and outright obscenity was replaced in polite company and on stage by double-entendre. Is this too much to ask of a film?

Charles II as shown is too much in isolation, not in the context of court his court. Everything is personalized, and hence romanticized, since the romantic period was the time of quintessential individualism, not the 1660's. The life of Rochester is turned into a love story, with Morton here, or love-hate of the Pygmalion kind. Morton is fine in her major scenes where she acts for Johnny and brings here Shakespearean characterizations to a fine point. But again, why Shakespeare -- in an age when English drama for the first time almost rivalled the Elizabethans, and was so different from them?

Libertine disappoints. It is too long, yet the effect is slight. In representing an age of wit, one must remember that brevity is its soul. Mind you, Depp is good in some of his scenes and, as always, interesting to look at with his big eyes and high gaunt cheekbones and this time, a sense of sadness and defiance. And Morton is quite fine, though one might wish she and the relationship were developed more fully, and some of the rest left out. The time of syphilis and the blind eye, the despair and rejection, is dragged out too long (brevity, remember?). More time ought to have been spent on the attitudes and the writing that have left Rochester remembered. It is true, he is not utterly typical of the Restoration; he is more extreme, as the contrast with the somewhat prissy Etheridge shows. But he was a part of the age, and couldn't have existed without King Charles's indulgence, and so the age should have been better represented.

A failure to capture a sense of period sinks this film, despite some memorable performances and a host of characters. Its most memorable aspect may be the bookend cameo monologue which begins, "You will not like me" and ends, "Do you like me? Do you like me? Do you like me?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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