Philobiblon: The Libertine - portrait of a grey, grimy and brilliant land

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Libertine - portrait of a grey, grimy and brilliant land

The England of The Libertine has been a on 15-year-long binge - a binge of drinking, and fucking* and every other kind of debauchery that its brightest and best could dream up. Suddenly, however, the "hair of the dog" has become ineffective and through the lens of director, Laurence Dunmore, you see a society abruptly awakened.

It is opening its eyes to a grim, grey and desperate land; even the gaudy decorations of the theatre are fading, peeling, corroding. But John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp), the man who has always shone above the rest, is not prepared to turn his path towards righteous, restrained endeavour that fits the new era - will not, and perhaps cannot.

I've always thought of Depp as a pretty-boy actor (when I've thought of him at all), but he turns in a stunning performance here, book-ending the film with wry, searingly honest monologues in which the twitch of the corner of an eye speaks volumes. And he manages to be both awful, and awfully attractive.

Yet he is almost eclipsed by Samantha Morton, playing his protege, the actress Elizabeth Barry, who, however much she might have to play the whore in the wings, is determined on stage to be her own woman, and secure her own fame. The final scene between her and Rochester is a wonderful portrait of a woman who has fought for and achieved power - for her the power over the fickle, dangerous, but passionately loving London theatre mob.

John Malkovitch is powerful too as the King - the man who'd led the party when he was restored to the throne as a fresh-faced youngster, but who's now an ageing roue, seeking, like any leader on his way out, to secure his legacy. He, as much as a king can, loves his subject Rochester, and he wants him to deliver for himself, but like any father, knows deep down that the Earl will always go too far.

But the star above all here is the camera - the way it peers through the murk to focus on a greasy strand of hair, a goosebumped arm, a bottomless pool of mud. You can almost smell and taste this rough, barbarian world - yet it is a world that values culture, wit and learning, a world the dissects and analyses every catch in Ophelia's voice, inspects every line of a new play to find the one that rings true.

And the language of the film - the words of the earthy, blunt 17th-century street, of the rapier-fast wit of the aristocratic fop, and the orutund flow of the formal stage - is brilliant. (It is based on the play by Stephen Jeffreys, and it shows in a classiness and complexity seen in few movie scripts.)

There was really only one scene I thought didn't work - the orgy in St James's Park, or at least the orgy that Rochester imagines. It is far too tame, too Vaseline-lensed an affair for the imagination of Rochester, but then again the director had to get at least an 18-certificate for it.

That's a reminder that for all the claims of the moralists, ours is an age far more uptight and hung-up than later 17th-century England. And in fact overall The Libertine is by no means an explicit film. A great many sexual things are suggested, but it never - thankfully - gets anatomical; it doesn't need to.

The only other negative is the handheld camera work - spinning around a character in a slow circle is rather overdone, and the first-time director should immediately put away the technique of moving two characters in and out of focus as each speaks - very year-one film school.

Nevertheless, as a portrait of an age, and of a brilliant man who's bent on sticking his hand in ever fire so that the pain can tell him he is alive, this film would be hard to beat.

I seldom go to the cinema, but my recommendation would be that even if you only go to one film a year, go to this one.

*I use the basic Anglo-Saxon here because it seems appropriate in the context of this film. (If it offends you here, you really don't want to see it.) The film itself has very few of today's "obvious" taboo words, but it might well revive a few of the old ones.


Blogger Janie said...

Hmmm...while I agree with most of what you say I must admit that it was TOO green-gray-gangrenous gritty grimy for my taste. At LEAST it did't have gore or much purient grunting and we were after all spared close ups of lice in pubic hair.I'm a fan of period films but sometimes I DO so wish that all the ravishingly lit scenes of lovlies in fancy lace dresses had a way of letting us know because of infrequent bathing and LIVING in only a few dresses they had to have smelled of strong BO and too much perfume. So I certainly can understand WHY the production designers decided to go with "reality" They used only candlelight.Since it was a portrait of debauchery and the debauched tend to sleep during daylight we were not treated to a SINGLE sunny outdoor scene.THere ARE some outdoor scenes with people in mud up to their ankles but its always drizzling. Having been in England I KNOW it rains a lot but good God Brits are famous for their GARDENS so there must be SOME sunshine. Authentic REALISM would Certainly have demanded at least a few frames of LIGHT!! Yes I DO appreciate the attempt to more accurately portray the "darkeness" of the age..but frankly I felt it more than a bit overdone. It was like they were afraid that only a 3/4 grimey film would make the moron aucience miss the point . Hence I felt like I was being hit with a hammer..assualted relentlessly without pity. I agree the acting was excellent. I just think this particular hybrid of film noir and film verity was overdone. Some of the visual puns were simply too gross. There is a scene where the king is saying he is being pissed on from half a dozen sources at once. JUST as he says that we see Prince Charles Spanials ( another pun) literally pissing on the court floor behind him. This FEELS like the stuff of scoolboys delighted to have the freedom to be as purient as they wish . I had a hard time getting through the whole DVD ..But because I DID see WHY they relentlessy grimy I wanted to hear them try to defend it I actually watched ALL of the Special features trying to find WHY they did this to such a wonderful cast!!( and story) If the movie was hard to take the Special features were worse...we were treated to long shots of spiraled dog poop and so much smoke, mud and grime I had to LAUGH at them. THe pieced resistance however was given by one of the principle "dudes" behind the scene.He was going on and on abut how hard it was to make it so "smokey"( he wanted us to smell it) He actually took a clean white towel and blew his nose and then SHOWED us a closeup of his smokey snots...It NEARLY made me lose my lunch

7/30/2006 06:26:00 pm  

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