“Allow me to be frank at the commencement,” Johnny Depp warns in a seductive British purr in the first few seconds of “The Libertine,” his fine features partially shrouded in candlelight. “You will not like me.”
But truly, how could we help ourselves? As John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, Depp plays the archetypal bad boy, a guy who partied like it was 1999 back in the 1670s. Wine, women, song — name it, he was into it, and fiercely so.
It’s as if his flamboyant character from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies had let himself go, physically and psychologically — given into all his darkest inclinations and lapsed into a deep, cynical state of debauchery.
As John’s preferred prostitute says in sizing him up, “I would call you a man who pretends to like life more than he does.” And that’s a very astute observation. Wilmot’s performance does feel like an elaborate defense mechanism, one that will be the source of his eventual downfall.
Depp’s performance, meanwhile, in riveting in its wickedness. This is a part John Malkovich would have played 20 years ago — and he did as the naughty, scheming Valmont in the thematically similar “Dangerous Liaisons.” Now Malkovich plays the morally uptight King Charles II (and serves as one of the film’s producers), with a prosthetic nose that makes Nicole Kidman’s fake proboscis from “The Hours” look dainty.
But a little of this devilishness goes a long way. Depp, of course, brings all his usual subtleties and nuance to the role — he does more with one eyebrow than most actors can do with their entire bodies — but after a while it feels a bit one-note and becomes overbearing. Then again, so does the entire film from Laurence Dunmore, working from Stephen Jeffreys’ script and play and making his directing debut.
Part of the problem is the visual scheme. In trying to capture the gritty look of the London streets, pubs and brothels John prowls while procrastinating on the play Charles II has asked him to write, Dunmore has come up with a dark, claustrophobic aesthetic that makes it look as if the whole film were drawn in charcoal. Cool-looking for a music video, perhaps; suffocating after nearly two hours.
John also spends a great deal of time in the cramped, candlelit theater with novice actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). Lizzie is plain and appears to have zero talent when we witness her first performance, but John — instantly smitten despite having a beautiful, aristocratic wife (Rosamund Pike) — bets his friends he can turn her into the toast of the London stage.
And he does. Her Ophelia brings down the house, but before that, her exchanges with John during rehearsal have a fire and wit that reflect her inner talent.
Then her ascension mirrors John’s decline. Despite having a way with words, the play he concocts for the king is just a lazy and crude pornographic display intended to shock the theater audience. The movie audience, meanwhile, will probably find it just tedious.