Libertine [2004]

The beautifully sculpted face of Johnny Depp fits right in with this masterpiece of design. The Libertine--filmed in a grainy, color-muted chiaroscuro--captures the lush costumes, extravagant decor, and remarkable filth of Restoration England. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester (Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ed Wood), warns the audience at the very beginning of the film that they will not like him. From there, he treats his wife cruelly, drinks to relentless excess, abuses his friendships, and generally wallows in dissipation, much to the dismay of King Charles II (John Malkovich, Dangerous Liaisons), who hopes that Rochester will write a play glorifying his reign. But Rochester finds his true inspiration (and the movie comes to life) when he sees a young actress named Lizzie Barry (Samantha Morton, Minority Report, Morvern Callar). Rochester sets out to make her the greatest actress of their time--and she, with some reluctance, submits to his teaching. The weakness of The Libertine is not that Rochester is unlikable; it's that he doesn't want to do anything. Barry galvanizes the movie because she burns with ambition, but Rochester's only apparent aim in life is an agonizingly slow self-destruction. Still, The Libertine has lurid Saturnalian visions, Morton is superb, Malkovich gives a typically insidious turn, and Depp, as always, finds moments of sad poetry in the bitterest of speeches. --Bret Fetzer

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