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The Libertine
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Review Date: 3
.14.06

The Libertine, a 2004 British film, is directed by Laurence Dunmore. Johnny Depp plays John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester, who lived from 1647 to 1680 and died of syphilis at the age of 33. This is the period when King Charles II (played by John Malkovich) was restored to the throne after the death of Cromwell, or, as the movie puts it, the Restoration's "hangover." Stephen Jeffreys won awards for his writing of the play, which opened in London in 1994 and was brought to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater with John Malkovich in the role of Rochester, a much wiser idea than casting Depp in that role, since we believe Malkovich when he plays a debauched and cynical character, while Depp still doesn't quite have enough depth, as it were. And maybe he's even too pretty.

The movie honors the biography, including the historical facts of Rochester's abduction of his wife, Elizabeth Malet (played by Rosamund Pike), the Merry Gang he hung out with (Andrew Marvell called them that), and the actress he coached who was also his mistress, Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). It also features actual verse by the Earl of Rochester, who was known for writing satirical and pornographic poetry, almost none of which was attributed to him until after his death. What's not so obvious from the movie-which depicts him as mostly a literary failure-is that he was widely admired and quoted by some of the greatest authors in the west: Defoe, Voltaire, Tennyson, and Goethe. He was also written about by other writers of the time.

There's been a revival of movies about historical libertines and libertinage-it seems fitting in a cynically moralistic age such as ours to do so-and each of them, it seems to me, has been of two minds about them. On the one hand, libertines are viewed  as heroes, daring to flaunt their lack of respect for rules of decency and caution because they are ethical absolutists, even if their ethics is a kind of world turned upside down. On the other hand, our age comes down hard on their moral debauchery and shows them paying for their sins in the end. This may be a reflection of the stories that are handed to us, but it is also clearly a reflection that suits our temperament.  The Libertine is no exception.  But what it does that is perhaps different, and better, is to maintain a certain distance from the character-from all the characters really, with the exception perhaps of the actress Barry-and it shows just how grim and cynical the pursuit of libertine ideals could be, rather than engaging in a fantasy about all the fun they must be having. It is a thoughtful film, with plenty of the philosophical meditations for which libertinism is known. It also achieves a high degree of literacy and teaches a small slice of history sort of accurately (except maybe for the fact that moderns seem to believe that early moderns were always dirty-Depp's hands are ever covered in grime, there are pigs and lots of mud in the street, etc. etc.). It also does a good job of focusing on the theater as a potentially democratizing borderland and as an art not quite yet deemed respectable but admired nevertheless.  Finally-though we aren't told this in the movie-because Charles II allowed women back onto the English stage, the portrayal of the ambitious and serious Elizabeth Barry does a good job of bringing to the fore the question of women's self-determination, or sovereignty. The exchanges between Wilmot and Barry are some of the best in the movie.

This brings up another interesting feature of The Libertine, one that also strikes me as accurate. There's no championing of masculine virility here, even though prosthetic members abound. Rather, we come to understand virile display as a way to criticize power rather than celebrate it, whether in the form of the Earl's extravagant pornography or in the form of Barry's ambition to become a great stage actress. Go see this movie; even its failures turn out to be interesting.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.