The Libertine

Mar 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

It was, apparently, hard out there for a pimp back in 17th century England too.

John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, lived hard, died young and got away with so many bad boy antics he could probably make 50 Cent blush. Rochester was a mack daddy for courtiers, wrote popular bawdy verses about things like orgies in St. James's Park, fought in his share of duels (which were against the law) and did some hard time in the Tower. Had he been born some centuries later, he'd have an agent and a phat recording contract.

To top it off, the Earl penned the play Sodom, which depicted Charles II as a character named Bolloximian. He also had the bollocks to dub the queen Cuntagratia, and other royals are depicted as Fuckadilia, Buggereanthus and Clytoris. (Louis XIV of France is christened Tarsehole the King of Gomorrah.)

Why did it take so long for someone to make a movie about this guy? And how is he not the poster child for authority-mocking youths everywhere?

In Libertine, Johnny Depp takes time from his family-friendly work as a creepy candy man and pirate buffoon to partake of some on-screen ribaldry as the philandering Wilmot, and he does so with that patented charming nonchalance that's made him Hollywood's most beloved rebel.

Libertine is not, however, all phallic dance scenes and debauchery; unfortunately, first-time director Laurence Dunmore casts a gloomy pallor over Wilmot's story, especially the second half. Stephen Jeffreys attempts to transfer his play to film, but struggles with his first attempt at screenwriting.

The filmmakers use Wilmot's rumored tutelage of esteemed actress Elizabeth Berry (Samantha Morton) to reveal the deeper side of the earl. Depp and the always fabulous Morton share some scorching scenes, including one hazy, candlelit moment where Wilmot prods her to bare her soul on stage.

Obviously, the earl can't sustain that wild lifestyle for long; nor can Jeffreys and Dunmore sustain the passion and power of the movie's first half. When the jilted Wilmot begins his plummet toward self-destruction — you don't need a history book to see that coming — the movie meanders into a murky, melancholy mess.

By the time Wilmot achieves his redemption in the eyes of Charles II (John Malkovich) and gives his rather unsatisfying death-bed conversion, you've almost forgetten that this is the same guy who put a gigantic dildo on a 17th century stage.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].