“I am the cynic of this Golden Age.”
Once every hundred years or so, a person is born who doesn’t belong in his century. The Marquis de Sade was one such person, and John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester was another. The film The Libertine set in 17th century England depicts the final years of Rochester’s brief, tragic life. The court of Charles II was a notoriously lax place, and the poet and libertine Rochester, one of the monarch’s greatest favourites, led a life of drunken debauchery and managed to scandalize and alienate even those who loved him.
This historical drama begins and ends with Rochester’s face framed by darkness as he delivers a monologue to the audience. He warns that “you will not like me now, and you will like me a good deal less as we go on.” And indeed the film is not an attempt to make us ‘like’ Rochester, but it is an attempt to help us understand his tortured paradoxical life, and in this goal, the film succeeds admirably.
When the film begins, it’s 1675, and Rochester (Johnny Depp) is recalled to court after a period of banishment. He’s excited to return and takes his loyal wife Elizabeth (Rosamund Pike) back to London, but it’s just a return to Rochester’s many bad habits–drunken sorties, nights at the theatre with his cronies eyeing the available actresses, and romps through his favourite bordellos. It is at the theatre that Rochester meets the last love of his life, the actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton).
The story tracks the salient events of the last years of Rochester’s tumultuous life–his troubled relationship with Charles II (John Malkovich), his sordid involvement in the death of his friend, his mysterious disappearance, his underground life as Dr. Bendo, and his final struggles with syphilis and alcohol. It is in Rochester’s relationship with Charles that we see the most difficult, self-destructive side of Rochester. He’s offered the opportunity by Charles to write a play to entertain the visiting French ambassador, and Rochester, naturally uses it as a chance to denigrate both himself and the king with a treasonous script.
Rife with bawdy quotes from Rochester’s work, the film recreates the atmosphere of the times delightfully–often by contrasting the magnificently beautiful with the horribly squalid. Directed by Laurence Dunmore, the film affords Depp the acting role of a lifetime. I doubt that any other actor could have delivered such a masterful performance, and Depp breathed life into his controversial, complex character. As a fan of Rochester, I found the film mesmerizing. DVD extras include the trailer, 10 deleted scenes, “Capturing the Libertine”–a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, and commentary from the director. If you are interested in reading about Lord Rochester, I recommend reading, Lord Rochester’s Monkey by Graham Greene.