The film version of Stephen Jeffreys’s The Libertine was, for me, perhaps the most anticipated movie ever. (The last Star Wars movie might also be in competition for that title.) I saw it as soon as it came to Athens. I watched it again on DVD tonight — I’ve actually been postponing watching it again for as long as I could. My memory of the film wasn’t very good, and I wanted to wait until I could come at it fresh again.

Here’s the trailer:

First let me say that I love Stephen Jeffreys’s original play. It captures a lot of the spirit of the Restoration even if it plays around with the historical facts a bit. Even though Jeffreys adapts his own play for the screen, the script really goes awry in the translation. On the whole, I think the movie’s direction, cinematography, set design, makeup, acting, etc. all work, but the script just simply sucks. It sucks bad. Really, really bad.

Johnny Depp plays John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. In many ways, this is inspired casting. Or at least it would have been a decade ago. By 2004, Depp is a little long in the tooth to play Rochester, who died at the age of 33. But Depp nevertheless does an excellent job in the part.

My main criticism of the movie’s depiction of Rochester is that its Rochester just isn’t sexy. We never get a sense of why people like him. When Sir George Etherege (played by Tom Hollander), who has written a play (The Man of Mode) whose central character is based on Rochester, tells the earl early in the film, “You’re an endearing sort of chap,” we should see that this is true. Unfortunately, we never do.

The movie begins with a monologue spoken by Rochester:

Allow me to be frank at the commencement: you will not like me. No, I say you will not. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on. Oh yes, I shall do things you will like. You will say “That was a noble impulse in him” or “He played a brave part there,” but DO NOT WARM TO ME, it will not serve. When I become a BIT OF A CHARMER that is your danger sign for it prefaces the change into THE FULL REPTILE a few seconds later. What I require is not your affection but your attention. I must not be ignored or you will find me as troublesome a package of humanity as ever pissed into the Thames. Now. Ladies. An announcement. (He looks around.) I am up for it. All the time. That’s not a boast. Or an opinion. It is bone hard medical fact. I put it around, d’y know? And you will watch me putting it around and sigh for it. Don’t. It is a deal of trouble for you and you are better off watching and drawing your own conclusions from a distance than you would be if I got my tarse pointing up your petticoats. Gentlemen. (He looks around.) Do not despair, I am up for that as well. When the mood is on me. And the same warning applies. Now, gents: if there be vizards in the house, jades, harlots (as how could there not be) leave them be for a moment. Still your cheesy erections till I have had my say. But later when you shag–and later you will shag, I shall expect it of you and I will know if you have let me down–I wish you to shag with my homuncular image rattling in your gonads. Feel how it was for me, how it is for me and ponder. “Was that shudder the same shudder he sensed? Did he know something more profound? Or is there some wall of wretchedness that we all batter with our heads at that shining, livelong moment.” That is it. That is my prologue, nothing in rhyme, certainly no protestations of modesty, you were not expecting that I trust. … I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and I do not want you to like me.

The film presents this prologue as a serious speech, which I think is a real mistake. It should be light and fluffy, like the prologues of Restoration comedies. We should be in danger of liking Rochester from this first moment we see him. We should laugh when he tells us about “putting it around.” We shouldn’t be creeped out. There has to be some possibility that we will have his homuncular image rattling in our gonads, but this film never gives us that possibility.

Johnny Depp in The Libertine The other mistake the film makes, it seems to me, is cutting out too much of the play and substituting new material instead. Two additions stand out as particularly misguided. Relatively early in the movie, Rochester walks around St. James’s Park, watching various orgies take place while reciting his poem “A Ramble in St. James’s Park.” I really can’t believe that Rochester’s poem is so literal. It cheapens his work to depict it in this way.

Second, late in the film we see Rochester give a speech in Parliament, a speech we’re meant to take as turning the tide against the move toward excluding James, duke of York, from the throne. This is not only historically inaccurate, but it makes no sense. It’s just wrong.

I also object to the movie’s cutting of the play. So much of Jeffreys’s language is lost in the movie. And I think the play’s language is often very funny and sometimes quite beautiful. It’s poignant and has something to say. I’m not sure the movie does; it’s just a rather limp biopic.

Movies about the theater can work. Just take the movie Stage Beauty, also produced in 2004. It’s also about the Restoration theater, but it retains a sense of comedy and is willing to show us the “magic” that can be achieved on stage (I’m always a sucker for those types of scenes!). It too is terrible inaccurate when it comes to history, but it better captures the spirit of the age, it seems to me. The Libertine also has a scene that’s meant to show us the magic of theatrical creation, but it ultimately fails because I think the film doesn’t trust its audience to really take this as a central point. It minimizes this scene in order to make the movie about Rochester’s fictional political work — his “speech” in Parliament and the resulting salvation for the monarchy. The original play’s theatrical point would have been a much better project to record on film than the movie’s historically aberrant creation of the speechifying earl.

The Libertine can’t quite make up its mind who Rochester is. Is he likable or not? Is his libertinism admirable or not? Is he just misunderstood? Or is he just a prick?

Apart from the script, I like this movie. The direction is good, and I really like the camera angles and editing. The cinematography is very gritty, and the film in general emphasizes just how dirty, muddy, and filthy1670s England probably was. The acting is also good. Depp, Hollander, Rosamund Pike, who plays Rochester’s wife, and Samantha Morton, who plays Rochester’s mistress, Elizabeth Barry, are all excellent.

So, in sum, this is a very flawed movie that I wish had been much more faithful to the original play. I’ve never seen a production of the play, but I would love to. I’m obviously not trained in how to direct a play, but I have a lot of ideas of how this play should be staged. I assume that would ruin for me any production I see. But maybe not. I hope I get the chance to see it someday. The main things to remember: make it sexy, start out funny, and then build towards the climax — you can’t start with absolute cynicism and then maintain that one note, even if you do cast one of the sexiest men alive as your leading man!