What creates a man like John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, circa 1670s England? He's wealthy, privileged, bitter, unhappy, and a rabid bon vivant who gorges himself with wine and then gorges myriad lovers with himself.
"Allow me to be frank at the commencement," Wilmot (Johnny to his friend) confesses right away in this story of his life, which begins five years before his disfiguring syphilitic death at the age of 33. "You will not like me." He warns the ladies in the audience that he's "up for it all the time." And he adds: "Gentlemen, do not despair, I am up for that as well."
So what do you think creates him? Love, of course -- or an ability to express it. In the capable body of Johnny Depp, Johnny Wilmot is a stylized Restoration rake and a pathetic figure who must take everything beyond the extreme to eke out even the slightest bit of satisfaction. He would seem to be an oxymoron, but he's really a paradox and possibly a cliché: an anhedonic hedonist, one who craves bounteous pleasures but who can't appreciate them (which is different than being insatiable).
The Libertine, adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his play, has virtually no sex and barely any nudity: Wilmot never consummates his predilection for men, and the movie's sole orgy is literally obscured by smoke. But Jeffreys and director Laurence Dunmore didn't want to make a movie about sex. Theirs is about love and redemption, and so the perfect tale for the Christian right. Of course, the filmmakers have history, and perhaps even a point, on their side: Who can deny that such unbridled debauchery and alcoholism will eventually lead to the corrosive horrors that befall John Wilmot? His reward came in posterity, when the literati revivified his elegant poetry and prose. One might almost say he died for his art.
The Libertine is gorgeous in its recreation of filthy 17th-century London. (Watch for a dog taking a dump on the palace floor behind King Charles II as he signs an edict.) Inside a theater -- where Wilmot deigns to dabble, and where he trains a young thespian (Samantha Morton) who wins his heart and then pierces it -- Dunmore's camera makes an absorbing 360-degree panorama that feels like a leak into the past. Jeffreys sprinkles his story with royal intrigue as Charles (John Malkovich), who encouraged the wild life that killed his friend, eventually became its financially and politically strapped victim.
There's a lot here for avid Anglophiles to read between the lines, although finally, The Libertine is too thin to support its o'er-weighty ideas, which are actually quite small (if no less true). In the end, when a scarred and crippled Wilmot hobbles into the House of Lords to save the king, it's hard for us -- or even for him -- to imagine that his decadence was worth it.