Just watched The Libertine. It had been sitting on my coffee table forever and a rainy Saturday when I didn’t have to work led me to watch it. I saw all the available extras first and then watched the feature.
I had never heard of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, so I was not prepared for the story line. Depressing, apparently that was his life. The support characters are the bright spot. Johnny Depp did a very good job as the Earl, I think, really acting each part of the character. In the repulsive nature of the Earl everyone else’s humanity glows brighter. Even his friends and the king, played by John Malkovich, do not appear as wealthy squanders in comparison, though they surely were in the 17th century.
I was surprised at the love his wife had shown him through his terrible treatment of her. I wanted her to give up and leave him, but that might be my 21st century ideals in direct opposition to her 17th century status and livelihood. Even on his deathbed she was there with his disgusting, syphilis-ridden body (or some other venereal), loving him to the end. On the other hand, she didn’t show any signs of the disease, so maybe his inattention was a salvation of health, if not mind.
While he had professed to love the actress, he was so self-consumed, living in hiding and running from the king, that he didn’t bother to know she had had his child. (I had guessed immediately when she didn’t want to get out of bed in one scene!) And she continued to live and work without him. He simply kept up delusions that it might happen and went on doing what he wanted and hiding his lesions. By that point the actress, Elizabeth, played by Samantha Morton, probably gave up on him. Although the drunken rain scene where the Earl is screaming for her might have been the low point when she realized it wasn’t worth it. I need to read up on the story line to be sure.
I am glad I saw it, but glad also it was on a rainy day, at my own pace, where I was doing nothing else. I would not watch it again, simply because of the depressing nature of the Earl’s life and how he chose to act in his short 33 years. The direction was amazing, as were the actors. The use of nature, the fog, the mud, the candle light (a joke with the actors), the lighting, the costumes, the sets, all made it so real. The motion of the camera, on the shoulder instead of the trolley setup gave it a completely different feel. I was right there with the characters, as if they were talking to me and walking around me. I love that. I love losing myself in a movie, and seeing all walks of life and each point of the day portrayed accurately (at least differently).
Apparently the Earl’s life and writings regarding it were plentiful enough that the screenwriters, and playwrites – it was a stage play first – had to cut out much of the history to make it an acceptable length. Which is surprising, as someone had said in the extras, usually storylines need to be invented to fill in the missing pieces. There is only a vague hint to his poetry or other writing that would prompt the king to bring him back from exile. Apparently he was a great and prolific writer of the Restoration period in England. His obvious indulgences and obsessions of the flesh, as the title slightly indicates, nonetheless ultimately get him in trouble with the king during a play. I need to research to see if this was more an attack on the king than anything else, especially since they were apparently friends.
I am glad to see the woman portrayed as strong characters. The Earl’s mother trying to get him to pay attention to his wife, continually on him to straighten out his life but not bowing to him. The wife, also named Elizabeth, played by Rosamund Pike, trying to make the marriage work but begrudgingly acknowledging his lifestyle and the ways of the upper crust of 17th century England. There is a scene where they fight over a bottle of alcohol and we see her finally stand up to him. He apparently expects her to want him dead but she declares she wants him to live, only change his ways. She truly does love him, and in a way he loves her, it is evident throughout the movie. The strongest of all is the actress Elizabeth, around whom the movie really hinges. She starts out angry at him during their first acting practice and putting the Earl in his place as much as she can. Then assumes she is to be another whore for him, why would someone of his character want to help an actress? We see her grow in her craft, and while he coaches, it’s her dedication that shows. Then, of course, there is her final discourse where she said the Earl gave her a livelihood and also the daughter he dreamed about, but that after giving birth she was able to get back onto the stage. It was evident, unless I missed part of the movie, he didn’t bother to inquire after her or might have known. She didn’t pine for him when he refused to come around, at least that the movie showed, but she was torn over his letters, ultimately continuing on with life and devoting herself to her own pursuits. Like I said, I need to get a history lesson to see if it’s true. But I was glad there were no wet-noodle portrayals. Clearly women swooned for him. But even in the whore, Jane, who followed him, loved him in her way, and understood life would change with each moment. Kelly Reilly did a good job as Jane. You can sense her excitement, longing, and dedication to the Earl.
Overall a good watch, but definitely follow with a comedy or an afternoon’s worth of other things to lift your spirits from the Earls miserably melancholy life and what appeared to be a very accurate portrayal of life in that time. Quite a bit different from other well-lit and uplifting, or even boring period films. Perhaps I’ll watch Much Ado About Nothing as the rain continues to pour down.