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Ennui-itude

March 31st, 2006 (12:48 pm)
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© 2006 D. Gordon


I saw The Libertine on Monday with the crazy French artist friend (who wanted to see Ice Age II; fortunately for me it hasn't been released yet). I'd been pushing things physically for a couple of days, but made it through the movie.</p>Well,... hadn't heard about it before checking the movie schedule, which will teach me: the first two thirds are a mess. The plot's first task is to establish that John Wilmot is a libertine (well, the title might've clued you in to that), but the examples have nothing to do with an actual story: some sex, them someone takes a swig from a wine jug; more sex, then another swig. The movie tries to shock the audience into believing in the depravity. Well, shock in the right place is wonderful; shock "just because you can" has been done much better - in the sixties. Then the plot shifts towards Wilmot playing Henry Higgins to actress Lizzie Barry's Eliza Doolittle. But (as the Brit would say) why? And why her? That setup was never quite convincing. And the plot itself... Did I say plot? What plot? The characters wander around muddy sets for most of the movie, looking about as lost as we were feeling.

Wilmot, aka the 2nd Earl of Rochester, was a real person, and that might be the problem with the movie. Nobody (or at least nobody in the US) really knows who he is. He might have written some witty, brilliant poetry, but he's too blue for high school English and doesn't have the name recognition of, say, the Marquis de Sade. (Popularity in the 17th century doesn't count in this case.) And the movie doesn't go very far in exposing the brilliance of the man's works, which I would think is a main point of the whole film. But you're just supposed to take that on faith.[1]

The last third, however, when the film breaks down and decides to follow a storyline, becomes a fairly riveting story. Wilmot has finally succeeded in offending his friend King Charles II (in front of the French ambassador, no less) and goes underground with his friends. Poor, on the run, and battling illness, Wilmot starts showing signs of being human, dealing with some of the issues that got him to the place he's in, using his talents in less self-destructive ways. This section had too much to overcome to make up for the first part, but it's engaging and kept me at least from completely writing off the movie.

And Johnny Depp... I like Johnny Depp's work, but there's something missing in his portrayal of Wilmot and I can't put my finger on it. He smolders, but it's more a damp heat. (Could very well be the material.) He's at least not channelling anyone to play Wilmot (although there's a spot of Freddie Mercury towards the end). John Malkevich's Charles II is solidly workmanlike, while Samantha Morton's Lizzie Barry is... well, impassioned, at least. And Rosamond Pike is convincing as Wilmot's wife - a woman who loved her husband, and whose husband loved her on some level - although something continually blocked him from returning that love. None of this, however, saves the movie from just plain being a mess. Mess, mess, mess.

[1] There's a bit about the earl on Wikipedia; sheds some light on him, but doesn't help the movie.