by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & The Libertine & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & really think Johnny Depp, having done almost everything else, wanted to play ugly. He looked at himself in the mirror one day and decided upon it. "It will be hard but will solidify my place in history," I imagine him saying, striding like Rameses about his house, naked save for a wrap of black chiffon. He then calls up the Weinsteins and says: "You got any leading roles you were saving for, like, Paul Giamatti or Phillip Seymour Hoffman or anything?"
"Well, we got this little period piece about a poet and playwright with syphilis," comes the reply. Depp tries to play it cool -- "Which period are we talking?" -- but loses it completely. "I don't care! I'll take it! Does my nose fall off?"
The nose does, in fact, fall off. But John Wilmot -- Depp's character, the namesake libertine -- is ugly way before he gets fitted for that crude 17th-century prosthesis and goes stumbling about the House of Lords. He's a hollow man, full of piss and vinegar, who lashes out at everyone and no one. The film too is ugly, but not in the way that befits a slog through the filth, theater and thought of Restoration England. It's a globulous, malformed wretch that doesn't know what to do with Wilmot, whether to make him a Restoration debauchee or the scion of the age. Is he what was right with the Restoration or is he what was wrong with it? The film can't make up its mind, and thus we're left with one of the most repellent characters on record (waaaaaay worse than Geoffry Rush's Marquis de Sade) flitting about the screen for two hours, repelling us. He's a vehement critic of everything and nothing. He pretends to hold opinions but easily changes his mind. He credits himself with an enormous intellect but does nothing with it. He heaps untold scorn upon his friends but needs them to prop up his own atrophied ego. There is, essentially, no depth to him. He is just what you see on the screen: repellent, greedy and childish.
His deathbed renunciation of atheism isn't redemption; it's a hedging of bets and, like all aspects of his life, a cop-out. Wilmot is a coward who is as afraid of death as he is of his own talent. For all the praise that is heaped upon him, the deference he is afforded in social circles and the long leash he is given by his King, Charles II, Wilmot never wrote a great work. Given the opportunity, implored to champion England, he instead wrote a rather pointless and decadent play about the impotence of Charles. There is, essentially, no story.
The Libertine, as a last resort, tries to speak to the vitality of Wilmot's mind in a way his actual works cannot. A scene before the House of Lords shows Wilmot employing a rather flaccid, obvious argument for monarchy and a few self-indulgent turns of phrase. That's rhetoric, not intellect. (It turns out the historical Wilmot was neither as brilliant nor as feared as playwright and screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys leads us to believe.)
In the end, The Libertine gives us exactly the John Wilmot we should have expected. He's a lout, a hypocrite and a minor talent who was very good at talking his way into and out of just about any situation. The heap of debauched, slandered and outright ruined lives he left in his wake is the only monument The Libertine manages to build, and even by the dubious standards of Restoration England, that's not nearly enough.