John Wilmot (Johnny Depp), the Earl of Rochester, benefited more than some from the return to the throne back in 1660 of King Charles II (John Malkovich), but now the land is in financial struggles after around thirteen years of indulgence on the part of the ruling elite. Rochester has been in exile from London at his country estate on the King's orders, yet lately it is thought that his powers as a writer and poet can bring the French on the King's side. But how reliable can a hard-drinking, womanising scoundrel such as Rochester be?
Answer: not very. The Libertine opens in an arresting manner with Rochester addressing the camera by informing us we will not like him, which puts the viewer on guard, thinking "We'll be the judge of that, matey", but this kind of arrogance is part and parcel of the character. At first, in spite of what he says, we can respond to his roguish charms as he returns to London - after frigging his wife Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike) in the back of the coach on the way there, what a class act. But as the story draws on, based by Stephen Jeffreys on his play, it all becomes rather tiresome.
At least the film has an interesting look, as if the sulphurous pits of Hell were all too near, bubbling just under the ground the characters walk on, an appearance that helps not only to make the production distinctive but also helps to gloss over the comparitively low budget. But while Depp piles on the louche charm one cannot be help but be reminded of his Captain Jack Sparrow as he would be if he had gone to the bad: he even shares the same voice, or accent at any rate. It's not that Depp is wrong for the role, it's simply that familiarity has taken the potential sting out of it.
But in truth, all the cast, including the star, come across as entirely aware of what is asked from them, with only Malkovich upstaged by what appears to be the same false nose that Nicole Kidman wore in The Hours attached to his phizzog. It's not the actors who are the film's downfall, it is the indifference to the protagonist's plight that rankles: who really cares if his bad behaviour has poisoned the reactions of those around him when he doesn't especially feel remorse himself? Not until it's too late, anyhow, and even then you're not entirely convinced of his reform no matter that the actress he has brought fame and fortune to now rejects him.
That actress, Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), we first see going down like a cup of cold sick at her most recent performance, where she is booed off stage. Rochester likes a challenge so knowing his way around a theatre persuades her to try again under his tutelage, and she is a huge success, but was he doing this for love or his own ego? Perhaps it was both. Elsewhere he puts his talents to squandered use when that play the King wanted him to write for the French turns out to be a pornographic parody of court life and is interrupted by an unimpressed monarch before it can end. This should be a highlight, but everything about The Libertine is so joyless that it's hard to see any pleasure that Rochester draws from his behaviour, and his desperate turnaround for the finale is neither cheering nor satisfying. And that finale drags on forever, if you like him by the conclusion or not. Music by Michael Nyman.