It seems that Johnny Depp, who may be our most consistently dazzling actor, will forever be nominated for his lesser roles. No one of major merit nominated him for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, or Ted Demme’s Blow but we sure as hell will nominate him for playing a drunk, silly pirate. How does our strongest actor’s most gritty, complex role get snuffed? Hell, even his performance in Ed Wood, his best performance, only scored a Golden Globe nomination. Don’t expect his latest in Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine to go anywhere past his British Independent Film Awards nod. There’s a better chance of his performance as Willy Wonka getting a nomination 'round these parts.
Depp plays John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, about as depraved and destructive a dissident as there ever was in 17th century England. Besides his duties as an Earl, Wilmot was also a poet, playwright and acting teacher. He married Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike), a woman he tried to kidnap only 2 year prior to marriage, and wrote plays that openly mocked King Charles (a business-as-usual John Malkovich) in his plays and poems, likening him to dildos and limp phalluses. Tell me you wouldn’t love to party with this guy. Before he got syphilis and fell apart (literally), he had a short affair with an actress, Elizabeth Barry (the radiant Samantha Morton). Dunmore’s film supposes that Wilmot had great emotions for Barry and that her leaving him was what made him die emotionally while syphilis ate away his body. Article continues below
Johnny Depp has never been this flamboyantly ferocious and fantastic. He takes great glee in stewing in the perversity and abusive distancing of Wilmot, who liked to take a man for a toss in bed every once in awhile. In an off-putting but well delivered opening monologue, Depp takes his time with his glinting English drawl and rolls his tongue with a titillating spark in his eyes. Depp’s performance won’t get noticed, of course, because the film isn’t bankable and John Wilmot is a terrible person for the most part. The only main problem with the film, in fact, is that the script and Dunmore both labor for us to eventually cheer for Wilmot, to like and respect him. Much more rewarding would be to keep him as the depraved debaucher he was, make the audience deal with someone they truly dislike, and cut out that grand end scene where he pontificates to the magistrates.
What is even more interesting and profound is Dunmore, a first timer who shows deep wells of promise and style. Lit darkly and with a dirty, foggy feel by newcomer Alexander Melman, who also shows amazing talent, the film feels like remembering a nightmare. Dunmore knows exactly what he’s doing with the material and brings Wilmot’s world into grimy relief. Most impressive is the way that Depp’s performance never outshines the material. Where many debuting directors have a great actor surrounded by a flimsy story (Pierce Brosnan in The Matador, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica), Dunmore’s film covers Depp in lush details and landscapes. And although the film shows the faults of a first timer (the pacing is a tad bumpy, the relationship between King Charles and Wilmot isn’t very well defined), there is no debating that this is a substantial first outing.