The Libertine Review

“Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me,” says John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (played by Johnny Depp), direct to camera at the start of The Libertine. The film then spends nearly two hours proving him right.

We begin circa 1678, when John is summoned from his countryside home to the court of King Charles II (John Malkovich). The King asks John to write a play celebrating his reign. Soon John falls into his old ways of drinking and whoring. Soon he meets and falls in love with actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). She becomes his mistress while he tries to turn her into the most celebrated actress of the day.

John Wilmot was a real person, who died in 1680 at age thirty-three from syphilis. The Libertine originated as a play by Stephen Jeffreys, and it remains a theatrical experience. The dialogue is well-written – though not above being anachronistic – but as cinema The Libertine is lacking much in the way of momentum. Laurence Dunmore does his best to distance his film from the Merchant Ivory/Jane Austen mode by using a handheld camera and shooting most of the film by candlelight. However, this look – all grey-greens, heavy on mud and smoke – becomes oppressive very quickly. The result is so monochromatic that you wonder why they didn’t go the whole hog and shoot in black and white, which would have looked far better. I doubt the filmmakers would have been allowed to do that, though, which is a pity.

On the plus side, Johnny Depp is always watchable, even – perhaps especially – giving such a larger-than-life performance as he does here. John Malkovich, who might have been a candidate for the role had he been younger (he did play it on stage in the 1990s) underplays Charles II, while Samantha Morton copes well with a difficult acting dilemma – how does a very good actor play a bad one? The supporting cast is made up of many stalwart British character actors. Composer Michael Nyman and production designer Ben Van Os give the proceedings a touch of class – and inevitable echoes of early Greenaway.

The Libertine is certainly well-intentioned, but it doesn’t come off. For it to work, someone like Wilmot should come across as a kind of life force. However, for all of Johnny Depp’s efforts it’s hard to care about someone so self-destructive and egotistical. The film is also not recommended for the prudish nor for anyone likely to be offended by some very explicit language.

This edition of The Libertine is encoded for Region 1 only. Shot in Super 35, the film is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced. There are no complaints about the way it looks – a dark and grainy film gets a dark and grainy transfer.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, with generally immersive results. The surrounds are used for ambience and also for Michael Nyman’s score, but ultimately this is a dialogu-driven film. There are twenty-four chapter stops.

The main extra is a commentary by Laurence Dunmore which I found on the dull side. Certainly there are details about the making of the film to be found, but he spends a lot of time simply describing the on-screen action. Dunmore also comments (optionally) on eight deleted scenes. There’s a play-all option, but the individual scenes are: “Death of Wyndham” (0:58), “Theatre Rehearsal” (2:59), “Rochester’s Bedroom” (0:52), “Rochester in Disguise” (1:17), “Estate Grounds & Dinner Table” (1:57), “Rochester Drunk at Desk” (1:05), “Backstage ‘Man of Mode’” (0:42), “Deathbed – Full Sequence” (5:15). The scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 with timecodes in the black bars. None of these scenes are anything extraordinary: generally, it’s easy to see why they were cut.

More interesting is “Capturing The Libertine” (36:05), a neatly put together making-of featurette. It’s full of the usual overpraise of everyone involved, but it is rather more entertaining than many such efforts. The Libertine made news in 2004 when the UK government closed a legal loophole leaving several ongoing productions suddenly without a budget. This may have seen the film closed down, but it finally struggled through to completion. This is covered in this featurette. Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (2:02). The DVD begins with trailers for Lucky Number Slevin and Scary Movie 4, but these can be skipped.

If The Libertine is your sort of thing, then this is a quite reasonable DVD, with all the extras you would expect. For all the well-wrought dialogue and strong acting, I found the film rather hollow though, like Merchant Ivory at their worst with ruder dialogue than normal.

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