The Libertine
A film directed by Laurence Dunmore
adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own stage play


The debut film from director Laurence Dunmore, with a script adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own stage play, is a dark and challenging study of one of literary history's more interesting footnotes. The story of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester tests William Blake's assertion that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" in ways that translate into intriguing questions about the "morality vs. freedom" debate in our own time.

John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, was a prodigy, already recognized in his late teens as a literary force to be reckoned with in mid-seventeenth Century England. Coming of age at the end of the repressive era of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan "protectorate," and at the dawning of the restoration of the English monarchy in the person of Charles II, Wilmot was caught up in an uncertain era where radically new intellectual, philosophical and political insights were being built among the still smoldering ruins of the feudal period.

In this turbulent period when even kings - who had previously ruled "by divine right," the veritable authority of God himself - could be overthrown and even executed by mere "people," the sources of any and all authority were thrown into question and a new spirit of "liberty" was born that eventually led - among other things - to the American and French revolutions. Wilmot was both a product and a casualty of that upheaval.

He was born to a wealthy royalist family. His father supported Charles I and protected his heir (who later became Charles II) during the Civil War. For this service, he was banished by Cromwell and died in exile when young John was only ten. Upon being restored to the throne, Charles II supported and indulged the son of his late ally.

But for John Wilmot the confusion of the years of his youth, the loss of his father at a very young age and separation from his family to be sent away to school at the age of eleven seems to have created a psychological dynamic that drove both his talent and his personal life in the direction of a kind of hypersentitive, self-indulgent self-destructiveness that produced some of the finest writing of the period, but ended with his untimely death from syphilis and alcoholism at the age of 33.

Although Wilmot was a celebrity of his age and his career was widely reported and commented on with fascination and fear, still the character created here is not in any academic sense "historical" and the playwright/screenwriter's purpose seems to be more to explore the dynamics of personality in a time of conflicting and uncertain moral values (not, perhaps unlike our own?) rather than create a true "period piece."

So although the film's period background seems suitably gritty and squalid - this was a time before solid waste regulation and indoor plumbing - and the political and social conventions are those of Restoration England, yet the character of John Wilmot seems modern and accessible. Like Oliver Stone's The Doors, which sought to examine the character of the mercurial, lyrical and ulitmately self-destructive rock-star/poet Jim Morrison, The Libertine speculates about the forces of psychology and culture that created and destroyed John Wilmot.

The paradox of creative energy, freedom and self-expression co-existing with narcissism, vulgarity and a suicidal licentiousness (in societies and individuals) was also explored in the film Quills - about the Marquis de Sade (who was born about a century later - but into times of similar upheaval). In all three cases it also ties into the perennial human fascination with sexuality - as an overt sexual character was a substanital part of all three men's lives.

It is a fascinating and provocative subject and it is handled here with great technical and artistic skill by a first-time director. The overall look of the film, its pacing, its composition in visual, aural, and narrative terms work together to produce a cohesive - if still incomplete and mysterious - portrait. And certainly part of Dunmore's skill lies in his fine casting and his ability to encourage and allow his actors do their work.

Samantha Morton plays Wilmot's protegé and mistress, the actress Elizabeth Barry, with a forthrightness and self-assertion that seem a bit anachronistic in the mid-Seventeenth Century, but she brings such conviction to the role as well as a powerful energy that she overcomes some of the polemic nature of a couple of her set-speeches, with an understanding of Barry's tendency - as an actress - to create drama in her life as well as her work.

Rosamund Pike, as Wilmot's long-suffering wife Elizabeth, is also stretched by dialogue that sometimes seems a bit too "stagey" and carefully crafted for the rough-and-tumble feeling of the times and the intimacy of film. But she carries it off with a combination of passion and reserve that works well. Francesca Annis, as Wilmot's controlling mother - who was a defining influence in his life - gives a coldly precise turn that serves very well to reflect his own schizoid difficulty in dealing with feelings in any context other than on the printed page - where he could fully control them.

John Malkovitch does a superb turn as King Charles (he played Wilmot in the stage version) conveying his complex role in Wilmot's life with intelligence and subtlety - both his affection for the Earl and respect for his gifts, as well as Charles's loyalty to a family who literally saved his life, side-by-side with his discomfort at the mess Wilmot was making of his life and the embarrassment he was creating for those who tried to support and defend him.

As is almost always true, the careful casting and small but powerful support of the ensemble cast is an important part of what makes the film work. Tom Hollander, Johnny Vegas and Rupert Friend as Wilmot's companions in debauchery, Kelly Reiley as the prostitute Jane, Richard Coyle as Wilmot's servant Alcock, and a host of lesser characters flesh out the story with overtones that add interest and texture to the main narrative line.

The center of the film is an exceptional performance by Johnny Depp - an actor clearly in the prime of his powers. His opening and closing monologues are small treasures of the film-actor's art, speaking directly to the camera, without props or setting, simply an actor first introducing and finally adding complexity to a multi-faceted, fully-realized character as full of self-contradiction, doubt and inexplicable mystery as any real human being.

It is Depp's ability to arouse and sustain our interest in a character in whom repulsion and fascination are farily evenly matched that makes the whole effort work. In the films mentioned above, performances by Geoffery Rush as de Sade and Val Kilmer as Morrison leave ample room for audiences to sympathize with their characters on account of the "tortured genius" of their personalities, but in this film, Depp manages create a situation where the audience can feel sympathy for Wilmot in spite of "who he is."

That Depp manages to make Wilmot compelling to watch in spite of his unattractive behavior (including alcoholism, promiscuousness, gratuitous cruelty, irresponsibility and monumental ingratitude) is a tribute to his immersion in the character in a way that directs us toward the compassion we feel for any fellow-human who reveals himself to us so honestly and unflinchingly.

The production values of the film are generally high, but it does reveal its low-budget roots in an occasionally-muddy soundtrack (at least on the print I saw) and some unevenness in the matching of image tones within scenes. Camera placement and movement was imaginative and varied and Alexander Melman, working as Cinematographer on only his second feature acquits himself respectably.

The excellent sets and settings are awash with gritty detail that lends an air of authenticity to the action - including one scene where a canine actor upstages John Malkovitch with a bit of "business" that couldn't have been choreographed but artfully emphasizes the coexistence of lavish luxury and barnyard primitiveness that characterized the period.

The only jarring element was the music - an original score by Michael Nyman that too often intrudes on the narrative and that is written in a modern musical vernacular that seemed totally out of character with the unpretentious approach of the rest of the effort.

The Libertine is a very well made film - especially from a first-time director - and indicates that Laurence Dunmore may be someone to watch for in the future. The performances by the entire cast - and especially Depp - are reason enough to see the film (in a parallel universe more focused on the Art of Film and less on The Box Office there would have been several "Oscar-nominated" performances here). But Jefferys' screenplay, ably-supported by the assembled talents, also raises many issues about celebrity, creativity, freedom, transgression and psychology - both personal and societal - that are still with us today and provide ample food for thought.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?