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Friday, April 14, 2006
The man who would be king
By KAORI SHOJI
In terms of movie-going, there are many things to be thankful for and high on my list is the existence of Johnny Depp: a gorgeous dude with precise, chiseled features who, despite the mainstream looks, has consistently chosen leftfield roles -- from the freakish ("Edward Scissorhands") to the lop-sided ("Ed Wood") to the difficult/nuanced ("Dead Man") to the downright campy ("Pirates of the Caribbean").
These roles have defined his career and he's matured into an actor who with a single glance or a flexing of his fingers, can change the entire ambience of the screen into something that is at once, more textured, meaningful, infinitely suggestive. To watch a Johnny Depp film is to understand his character (and, by implication, the story) more profoundly. It's to experience an impact on the senses that few of his contemporaries can deliver.
And now "The Libertine" shows him at his most snarky and audacious; the film opens with a monologue in which he ensnares the camera with a shifty gaze to assure us: "You will not like me."
Depp is John Willmot, second earl of Rochester, a brilliant but despicable rogue who drank and generally debauched himself to death at the age of 33 and in the process managed to offend most of the aristocracy of London during the Restoration. The earl had been a gallant soldier during his youth and helped King Charles II reclaim the throne from Oliver Cromwell, but from his late 20s onward, he repeatedly fell out of favor by authoring obscene verse that poked scathing, ribald fun at the crown. The movie suggests utter boredom and self-loathing drove the earl to depravity, and here Depp's performance suggests that the earl was how he was because he could be no other way.
Swilling drink, fondling whores and spewing obscenities came as naturally to him as breathing. In one scene he's riding in a carriage with his wife (Rosamund Pike) and he snakes his hand in between her legs. She sighs with rapture and then falls asleep -- he alights from the vehicle, telling the driver to take her home.
Then, with a gesture so simple and natural (almost like blowing his nose into a hankie) he brings his fingers up to his face, sniffs, smiles and walks across the muddy street and into an alley.
The alley street, by the way, is all muck and filth, with wooden planks placed down the middle that made it barely possible to navigate the quarter. But clearly the earl relished the stench, noise and bustle of backstreet London and in a short while he has joined his friends in a riotous drinking session, including poet George Etheredge (Tom Hollander) and an ardent protege Billy Downs (Rupert Blend). The earl warns Billy in an aside to stay away from them if he valued his life -- "You will die young," he says, perhaps in premonition of his own impending doom. And then the gravity is gone and The Earl goes back to his insidiously frivolous self, cavorting with his favorite whores and attending the theater where he spies the talents of actress Elizabeth Barry (a disciplined and unobtrusive Samantha Morton). She turns out to be the smartest and therefore most intriguing woman he has met; he offers to tutor her in her craft and reluctantly, she agrees. "Knowing your reputation, I thought you may have wanted to tutor me in something else," she says to him. "I have, I hope, many reputations," is his reply.
Their love affair blossoms, and then fades as the earl is blacklisted by the king (John Malkovich) and falls prey to venereal diseases that corrode his limbs and destroy his nose. The latter half of the film is agonizing to see as the earl sinks into screaming pain (he bathes in a tub of melted mercury that was deemed a cure for syphilis) and terrible physical decay, but he remains staunchly himself. Even as he appears in public with a silver "nose" strung across his face in lieu of the real thing, he persists in talking dirty, glugging wine and pissing off anyone who comes within range, including his uptight and long-suffering mother (Francesca Annes, who spends the entire film with her lips in a grim purse).
"The Libertine" belongs mostly to Johnny Depp, but it's also director Laurence Dunmore's eye for period detail and skill in re-enacting the overripe, sweaty fervor of 1660's London that define the film's strange, tangy taste. Drenched in hellish, dark tones and dedicated to authenticity down to the obscure -- rusty pegs on a pub wall -- the overall tone recalls the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
Dunmore is led astray, however, during the scenes that laud illicit sex and debauchery as a wild, fantastical adventure. While the earl reveled in sex, he clearly didn't see it as some exotic, other-world pleasure that promised to turn his life into a nether-dream. For the life of the earl was a nether-dream to begin with, and sex a constant but mere appendage -- one that rarely assuaged his colossal boredom.