I watched a couple of great movies this week: Malcolm X, and The Libertine.
Both were similar. Both were based on the life of real people. Both were very dark in tone. Both were challenging to watch but well worth the effort.
The Libertine stars Johnny Depp as 17th poet, playwright and all-round reprobate John Wilmot, better known as the Earl of Rochester. Played with a wonderful combination of exuberance and despair by Johnny Depp, Wilmot opens the film with a prologue during which he declares "You will not like me". And he's right.
John Wilmot is portrayed as the 17th Century version of a self-absorbed rock star. Self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-loathing, with emphasis on the "self". Talented but lazy, intelligent but crude, lionized yet isolated, Depp portrays the dissipated Wilmot like a spoiled rock star in the mold of Axl Rose or Nikki Sixx--an out of control Bad Boy whom no one has told to grow up. As Wilmot's looks and health succumb to the ravages of syphilis, he increasingly resembles Freddy Mercury in his final days.
The movie is not perfect, by any means. It suffers from a certain air of "staginess" and the script occasionally loses focus, resulting in periods that are bordering on tedious. Less emphasis on Wilmot's relationship with actress Elizabeth Barrie and more on that with King Charles II (wonderfully played by John Malkovich) would have improve the plot considerably. Many of the supporting characters are flat and lifeless, and there is no real antagonist to the story.
Reactions to the movie show that there is no middle ground. You will love it, or you will loathe it. Of the negative reviews I've read on Amazon, about 70% seem to be from women who picked up the movie solely because Johnny Depp was in it, and were disappointed to find such a dark and depressing story. Another 20% were from people who objected to the vulgarity of the movie (making me wonder what the hell they were expecting of a movie called "The Libertine"), with the remaining 10% of viewers who knew what they were getting into, and sincerely gave the movie a chance.
Perhaps it's best to think of The Libertine as a very, very dark counterpoint to Shakespeare in Love, a movie that it very much resembles in many ways. Don't let that mislead you into thinking that this is a feel-good movie, however, because that is one thing that it most definitely is not.