If you plan to see The Libertine, an artful and brooding period piece about a scandalously debauched earl of the English Restoration, a few words of advice before you leave: Take a peek at the sun. Drink in some fresh air. Consider bidding goodbye to the majority of the color palette (red, yellow, blue, purple), and the simple pleasure of a well-lit room. You won't be seeing any of it for the next couple of hours.
You might also want to gather the reins of your self-respect and hold on tight. The Libertine's protagonist is a bitterly corroded being, apparently not in contact with feelings of compassion or sympathy, and his company is bleak, if sometimes amusing. The film opens with an attack — “I am John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, and I do not want you to like me,” Johnny Depp snarls at the camera — and it doesn't soften, despite the earl's apparent infatuation with actress Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton). By the time the alcoholism and syphilis have peeled the skin from his face and the muscle from his bones, it's hard not to feel at least a little tainted by Rochester's vast personal plague.
The Libertine is an interesting film, and a good one, with a harrowing performance by Depp, whose apparent enjoyment of the role seems only to increase as his character deteriorates. There's plenty in Rochester to wonder about: How does a man become such a monster? What is he reacting against? To what degree is he lying to himself and not just to us? (Essentially, we're provoked to investigate his defenses.) The Libertine is also flawed, particularly by its principal subplot, which pits Rochester against Barry in a replaying of the familiar Pygmalion myth. (Through grueling lessons in the art of acting, the man brings the woman alive.) These segments feel polluted by contemporary pop notions of psychology. “Ask yourself what you want from the theater,” the earl smarms, as though he were a therapist and not a withering sexaholic, debauching himself into an early grave. Get up there and thrust your boobs forward, would be more like it. Or, if the plays he writes are any indication, Sit astride a giant penis and sing its praises.
(It's also hard to believe that the couple love each other. Rochester has never met a pair of legs he didn't want to part, and the fiercely self-interested Barry defines men as “hurdles that must be negotiated.” If we're to believe that either party has unfrozen long enough to enjoy feelings of warmth, we'll need far more time and evidence. As it stands, their connection looks like intrigue, so it shouldn't be sold as love.)
Rochester was a writer. Actually, he seems to have excelled in all three of the prominent male pursuits of his day: “the scribbling of verses, the emptying of bottles, and the filling of wenches.” (“Anyone can drink,” his mother reproaches. Rochester's reply: “Only a few can match my determination.”) He was also an associate of King Charles II, played here with nuanced brio by John Malkovich. Penniless and feckless, Charles attempts to use Rochester's astounding popularity to his advantage in Parliament, but, since Charles offers neither alcohol nor sex, Rochester is having none of it. Instead, he prefers to carouse with his miserable friends, display himself at the theater (where he, more than the play or the king, is the show), and practice cruelty to Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike), his long-suffering wife.
The relationship between Rochester and Elizabeth is finely drawn. We first encounter them in a sex scene, a brisk moment in a carriage when Rochester plunges his hand into his wife's crotch and slides his fingers first into her mouth and then his. You don't often see such frank sexuality on-screen; it's both shocking and, uncomfortably, sexy. Later, as the two sit for a portrait, Rochester compares Elizabeth to a female monkey, gloating about the opulence of her cage. She flees and then returns for a confrontation that shimmers with intelligence. Both actors face the camera, with Rochester in the foreground and Elizabeth behind; Rochester will not face his wife, and the camera's focus shifts from one to the other as they speak. It's perfect.
In the end, Rochester leaves us with a version of his initial assertion, this time a question: “Do you like me now?” It's an odd query: Would the real Rochester have bothered to ask? Anyway, the question isn't whether we like the man (we don't). It's whether we find him interesting, and we do. He is a study in excess, addiction, depression, narcissism, anger, self-loathing, cruelty, and wit, among other things. It's clear that this so-called libertine is not free, but rather hounded by a vicious breed of demon. Director Laurence Dunmore has cast almost every frame of The Libertine in shadow, fog, and dust, not least to dramatize the perdition of his anti-hero. But we can see through the mist and the mud to the man.