Yes, Sherry used the same title, but it’s apt.

We went to see The Libertine today. Johnny Depp, John Malkovich, sex, scandal, theatre, the Restoration – hopes were very, very high. The prosthetic noses let us all down.

The movie wasn’t bad. I would like to watch it at home, in the evening, with a bottle of wine. Red, natch. It would enhance the sensual, the licentious, the down-and-dirty aspects of the film. The exposition at the beginning of the movie explains that it is not taking place during the days of Merry Olde England. With the Puritans swept out of the picture, people partied down in the early 1660s. However, by 1675, as the movie noted, the hangovers had set in. The Great Plague, followed by The Great Fire, combined with the general bankruptcy of the monarchy, were pretty strong hints that the party was over.

However, life for the nobility isn’t quite the same as for the rest of us. Petty cares? Bah! Enter John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, and the Libertine of the piece. Hard-drinking, sexually voracious, utterly amoral, thoroughly irreverent, and passionately invested in the arts (specifically the theatre), which he claimed enabled him to feel when his cynical soul failed him in all other areas of life.

You see the Earl “going too far” over and over. His wife is a woman he abducted as an 18-year-old virgin (and, presumably, had to marry afterwards – good thing she’s rich). Instead of becoming his equal in power and passion, he reduces her to abject misery, loving his wildness, his passion, his balls-out attitude towards life – at the same time as she is unwelcome to share in it. (And really, how much fun can life be, stuck in a drafty old country house in Oxfordshire with one’s pious mother-in-law, or trying to keep one’s dignity while one’s husband creates the juiciest gossip in London.) The Earl is also usually drunk, intimately known to the whores of London (and seems to prefer their company), and has his band of noble friends, none of whom really seem to get much more done than he does. And yet, he is a favourite of King Charles II. Interesting to see the king played as the grown up and the straight man, given Charles’ reputation for revels and the ladies, and given that he’s played by John Malkovich, one of the most intensely and intellectually sexual men on the planet.

The movie basically tracks the Earl’s orchestration of his own downfall. He drinks away his creativity. He whores away any feeling he might have had. He accumulates debts and disgusts polite society. He hires a thieving rogue who ends up being his perfect foil, and whose loyalty stems from his respect of the Earl’s lack of it. The Earl simply refuses to play by the rules, which takes dedication, seeing how few of them there really were for a man of his standing in that time. (Of course, being of the nobility and under the king’s eye, there were a whole other set we cannot begin to fully appreciate.)

The Earl loses the love of the only woman he truly cherishes, because she is ambitious, driven, and knows all too well to what depths he will drag her down to with him (especially since she does not have the luxury of the social fabric of the nobility at her disposal). She is passionate towards him, and grateful for his help in her ascension of the ladder of her career ambitions, but she will not kowtow to him or sacrifice herself in any way for him. (At the outset of their acquaintanceship, she is expecting and willing to sell sex to him, and there is a great deal said in both her expectation and her pragmatism.) Elizabeth Barry is smart, fiery, independent, and utterly dignified in a world where almost everyone else isn’t. (An impressive accomplishment in the days when actress equalled whore.) A nice counterpart to his wife, who embraces him up to the end (when he is literally rotting, thanks to the joys of advanced syphilis).

There is a scene that is supposed to illustrate what the Earl could have accomplished for the side of good, had he been so inclined. He changes history with a single speech, doncha know. Fairly amusing when one considers that the monarch his speech immediately benefits, and the succeeding monarch who his speech most benefits were pretty much as profligate as he was (and no strangers to the syphilis). Not sure if it’s all meant as a cautionary tale or to add further pathos to his untimely end.

Overall, one can never get too much Depp or Malkovich. And there are certainly many, many angles from which one can examine the actions and motivations of the Earl, the outcomes of the characters, or the messages and meanings of the story and various images presented.

Idle hands, and all that…

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