Before Oscar Wilde there was the Marquis de Sade, and before him there was John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester. Johnny Depp’s libertine Wilmot revels in his personal debauchery, a literal symptom of the "hangover" of the seventeenth-century English Restoration. A century before, the Puritans had shut down Shakespeare’s theater-mad Elizabethan England and imposed their spirit-suffocating pietism for decades. Subsequent Restoration theater gloried in the profane and licentious, most often taking the form of comedies. As The Libertine opens, it is 1760 London and King Charles II (John Malkovich) has summoned the Earl of Rochester back to his court, admiring Wilmot’s irreverent spirit and literary talents. Charles has not yet learned to appreciate just how ardently the Earl burns his candle at both ends and in the middle, or that he bites nearly every hand extended in his direction.
Stephen Jeffreys adapted the screenplay from his original play The Libertine, and the resultant film has a markedly formal, proscenium-stage feel to it. Seventeenth-century London lords and ladies walk, stumble, and fall in ankle-deep muddy roads. Rain falls incessantly. Dark, smudged lighting casts deep shadows across many scenes. The entire film is shot in dark, dank browns and grays. The effulgent wigs and complicated garments people wear poorly cloak over fleas, lice, and a host of human imperfections. The characters’ florid, hyperbolic, elliptical, punning manner of speech rings true to the Restoration era, as both mirrored and modeled in the stage plays of the day.
Mimicking Restoration drama conventions, the film opens with a show-stopping prologue, in which the Earl repeatedly warns, "You will not like me and I do not want you to like me." In his outspoken anti-social stance and his unrepentant profligacy the Earl embodies his beliefs, making himself, again and again, the thorn is society’s side. (This libertine, like all libertines worthy of the name, died of complications brought about by alcoholism, syphilis and other unappetizing habits, in a state of complete social and physical ruin in his early 30s.).The second Earl of Rochester was as much a self-constructed larger-than-life personage as he was a victim of his own unbridled appetites. In all of this, The Libertine suggests comparison with the writings of the Marquis de Sade and the Royal Shakespearean Society’s filmed performance of Peter Weiss’s 1964 play Marat/Sade.
Also in both films, principles – such as personal liberty, freedom of speech, and artistic license – function as characters as much as setting. As the Earl of Rochester lives out the moral and social conflicts, he embodies them as well. His personal and fortunes are summarized in the movie’s play-within-a-play — the Earl infamously provides entertainment for the visiting French ambassador with a performance of Sodom or The Gentleman Instructed, in which, among other things, as the film depicts, women dance in circles with their dildoes. Purportedly "the most obscene play ever written," Sodom is considered the first piece of printed pornographic literature in English. In it, the King of Sodom decrees universal sodomy, whereupon the actors perform sexual acts of every imaginable variation, and the satire concludes with everyone contracting venereal diseases and descending into madness and death. Not surprisingly, Charles interrupts this royal performance and permanently banishes the Earl from London society.
Along the way to his own early madness and death, Wilmot’s profligate principles commingle with flesh-and-blood love interests. His wife Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike) epitomizes the graceful bearing of class, fulfilling her wifely duty by loving him, even as he comes crawling back a diseased, dying shell of his former self. Wilmot unleashes his brutal honesty on the struggling young actress Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton), whom he (sadistically) whips into shape, coaching her to be the greatest actress she can be — to be real and give her all in her performances. Like Wilmot, Lizzie succeeds when she substitutes performance for real human connection. The rest is all womanizing, scatological self-destruction, and a maddening, tragic internal blindness.