Not that one feels the need to judge Wilmot, or the actor’s portrayal. If anything, Johnny Depp, as he often does, appears like a punk rocker who wants to rid the screen of any sense of bombast, pretension, or false notes. Yes, Depp, as he did in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Thompson’s landmark novel Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, leaps way over the top to capture every nuance of his tortured character’s soul. But he also often plays these passages as a rich riff pounding across a stage underlines a specific beat, rather than using the spotlight to solo while using hammy, ill-advised gestures.
Wilmot was an actual historical figure, fictionalized to a degree here, but for the most part, the film hits the symbolic nail on the factual head. Depp plays a character who was a Libertine, a satirical poet of note who was beloved by the Restoration court, acquired and spent a fortune through various familial connections, i.e. his near kidnapping/courtship of his wife, an heiress, Elizabeth Malet. They lived peacefully in a giant and isolated country estate, but Wilmot/Rochester, bored easily of this bucolic lifestyle, and returned often to the city life, its sick treasures, and the invitation for drinking and jumping into bed(s), whether it was with a female or male didn’t seem to matter to the insatiable desires of the Man Who Went Too Far. He was a cynic, and preferred non-god animal instinctual needs over the alleged civilized behavior of humans.
And so he did, lived like a beast, loved and lusted his way through a menagerie of hellion conquests, and even found time to coach a mediocre thespian to truly great stagecraft.
Elizabeth Barry is played with formidable skill and excellent restraint by the sublime Samantha Morton. Steven Spielberg has struggled as an artist in the last 10 years, but there was something just plain fantastic about Minority Report, and much of that fact came from the way that the scenes were shot with jagged grittiness by Janusz Kaminski, and dramatized by Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow, and Samantha Morton.
The Libertine, superbly directed by Laurence Dunmore in his debut, was shot in a strangely compelling, and yet foggy and misty (country life), and dirty and muddy festival milieu (17th century sprawled city wreckage) by Alexander Melman. Wilmot cannot persuade Barry to love only him. She has what she needs, and his sudden desire to understand his love for Barry will not reach the goal that he achieves—divorce from his wife, Elizabeth, to wed another Elizabeth and kindred spirit. Elizabeth Barry is Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester’s mistress for a spell, but once she becomes a successful actress, she decides to dispense with her teacher, rather than share a spotlight by constantly being reminded that Wilmot had initially taken her under his gifted and egotistical wing. She is both wise, and very much like Wilmot; hence, his shock that someone could treat him this way. After all, an actor never forgives those that gave them their first success.
And so Wilmot finally finds that great love of life that his existence had been missing—away from the pursuits of his mad yearnings from booze to odd stories to rampant sex. The poet finds a semblance of respect for the trappings of the human world, and he follows down his chosen path towards redemption. If the film is deceptively downbeat and dejected during Wilmot’s downfall, it is also ironic that these scenes are paralleled by the conviction that the man has found some sense of peace in his own little worldview.
Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, was born on April 1, Fool’s Day, and it seems appropriate that he would also symbolically choose to whisper in the ear of his reigning king. Instead, Wilmot yelled. He wrote a play that scandalously satirized the monarch, King Charles II. The royal throne was not amused, and the king briefly exiled Wilmot. Oh, he wasn’t gone for too long, but his life continued towards the darkness, like a man caught in a deadly tractor beam, slowly heading towards his own preordained doom.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile poet/playwright/scalawag continued his devilish ways, attempted to keep his family at their country estate intact, and eventually acquired nearly every known form of sexually-transmitted disease. His mental and physical capabilities, in life and on film, obviously, headed south, but Wilmot eventually stumbled down his own road of excess that finally led to that little palace of wisdom.
On his deathbed, according to published reports, he renounced his hatred towards religion, rejected atheism, and embraced the light of truth. Or so the visiting priest had the public believe afterwards. One does not know the full truth, and it makes sense that Wilmot took that individual spiritual nugget to his grave. Or, perhaps, he continued his voyage along the path he had also chosen through his own Free Will. Or was it Fate?