"I don't mean to upset people, but I must speak my mind. For what's in my mind is far more interesting than what's outside my mind."
Arrogant words to be certain, spoke by an arrogant and defiant young man. There is much debate among those who know of the man John Wilmot; scholars mostly for, truthfully, who else cares about a more than two centuries dead poet, pornographer and satirist? The debate boils down to not IF he was a genius, for facts abound to verify that he was, but if he WASTED his genius. I say the answer to that depends entirely upon what the young boy Johnny wanted for his life, for if true Libertinism was his goal then he spent himself well. By every estimation, those who saw him as a literary genius felt he wasted it upon pornography and the theatre, which to some were synonymous at the time. Those who saw him as a political mind felt he wasted that with his Hedonistic behavior and aggressive actions to appall the Court. Those who would call themselves his friends, as John Wilmot himself would have said he had none, a handful of people who would themselves to him for his rebellious nature and Libertine Genius. Wilmot might have quarreled that they could never admit that they enjoy the company of one so vulgar as he and must hide it behind pseudo-intellectual socio-political movements established so that men might do what comes naturally to men and seem ingeniously amoral because they buck the constraints of an all too ostentatious society.
The opinion that Wilmot held of himself, however, is something that seems readily determinable as Highly by a brief review of his work. I think, however, by looking at the man's life and more deeply at his works, what you find, instead is a sad young man, unchallenged, unmotivated and uninspired in much of his life. He never denies his own genius, indeed I think he was inundated by the compliments of others and, feeling unchallenged in the attainment of this lofty title, John behaved instead to the absolute contrary of what his Puritan mother, highly respected, political father and royal admirers expected of him in an attempt to foster the hatred that he felt for himself, and perhaps, in doing this, create the resistance that true genius needs to excel.
Wilmot's life, though brief at only 33 years, was quite amazing by most standards. Born to a staunchly religious mother and an heavy alcoholic-Military Hero father who spent most of John's childhood in exhile, by the age of twelve, young Johnny had enrolled at The University of Oxford. Yes, that Oxford. At fourteen he received an MA. By the age of seventeen he was deemed a war hero. He married Elizabeth Malett, at age twenty, whom he had unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap at age eighteen. The next thirteen years of his life were a volley game between he and the king, in which he was frequently banished to his country home and his wife and immediately upon reprieve would flee to the city, the theatre and any number of his many mistresses and lovers, including the famous actress Elizabeth Barry. At age twenty-seven he fled the outrage of the king only to impregnate any number of women as a sperm donor under the guise of a fertility doctor "Dr. Bendo," with reputedly grand success. As an Earl, he lived a life of debauchery intermingled with an outspoken and willful life in politics only to die at the age of thirty-three from a far advanced Syphilis, and liver-failure from his drug and alcohol use. And throughout he left an immense impression upon the society of his time, and a remaining body of work that shows his own personal whimsy as well as the eloquence with which he could argue or present any point at parliament. He was as in love with life as he held a hatred for himself and the mockeries of civilization made by mankind. Stephen Jeffreys' opening speech for The Second Earl of Rochester speaks to exactly that. At the start Rochester insists you will not like him, but truth is found in the last line when he states that he does not want you to.
"Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on. Ladies, an announcement: I am up for it, all the time. That is not a boast or an opinion, it is bone hard medical fact. I put it round you know. And you will watch me putting it round and sigh for it. Don't. It is a deal of trouble for you and you are better off watching and drawing your conclusions from a distance than you would be if I got my tarse up your petticoats. Gentlemen. Do not despair, I am up for that as well. And the same warning applies. Still your cheesy erections till I have had my say. But later when you shag - and later you will shag, I shall expect it of you and I will know if you have let me down - I wish you to shag with my homuncular image rattling in your gonads. Feel how it was for me, how it is for me and ponder. 'Was that shudder the same shudder he sensed? Did he know something more profound? Or is there some wall of wretchedness that we all batter with our heads at that shining, livelong moment. That is it. That is my prologue, nothing in rhyme, no protestations of modesty, you were not expecting that I hope. I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and I do not want you to like me."
This is the John Wilmot that was written by Stephen Jeffreys. This is the 'Johnny of the Merry Gang' portrayed brilliantly by Johnny Depp. This brilliantly devised tale that endears a man who stands for everything that our society routinely rejects with an intense level of turmoil and polarizing contrast is not, however, what is depicted by Laurence Dunmore in 2004's The Libertine.
Let me preface the following with a single statement: The Libertine is an excellent film, well worth watching. Visually beautiful, if not so monochrome and drab as to nearly be a gold tinted black and white, and well performed on the part of every actor.
Understand, especially if you are American, that this is not an "American" film. Nothing blows up. Very little catches fire. Most of the film depends upon dialog. Oh yes...and you must pay attention. Although the sex scenes are not prudish, nor are they worthy of the pornographic and hedonistic lifestyle of the man they portray. They are, in fact, down right boring. Am I one to watch pornography. No...not really. I view porn as I view sports - something I'd far rather be doing than watching others do. For the purpose of this film, however, the level of sexual and socially vulgar behavior was nothing I would be ashamed to sit beside my grandmother and watch. THAT, is directorial cowardice.
In a story about a man who would DARE to write a play for King Charles II to be performed before foreign dignitaries and choses to make it about the King's obsession with cock, let alone produce it - complete with a GIANT phallus upon which actors and actresses ride - this is a man whose story is owed far more than a few mild visual inferences to anal sex and hints at homosexuality so faint your personal fantasies about Johnny Depp or Rupert Friend would completely distract you and the moment would be lost. Again, do I seek pornography? No. Do I think this film may have been done far more justice in the hands of Ang Lee, Sam Mendes or Johnathan Demme? YES.
Throughout the film the dialog and the acting is engaging. The presentation is lacking in meek camera work and lazy editing. Although long, uncut segments of film can serve a purpose at times, entire scenes one after the other to go un-cut or only mildly snipped leaves the power of the moments impotent. While on a stage the audience is easily caught up in the energy of the actors, there is a palpable, tangible energy being conveyed. We have only a cold screen before us and it is the director's duty to make sure that the actor's energy conveys and connects to us. In The Libertine that energy and vitality was greatly lacking.
Another element that is used to help further the environmental energy is the soundtrack. When you study film, you learn that sound is all important. You can have a crappy visual image so long as the sound is pristine. A perfect experiment would be to send ten people into a room with only one outlet. They have a tv monitor with no speakers or they have a radio/stereo unit. Of the two items, the stereo will almost without question be the item they chose to plug in for entertainment. SOUND is more stimulating. A poor soundtrack or a distracting soundtrack can destroy a movie, just as the perfect soundtrack (i.e. Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) can solidify a film so deeply in an audience's mind that the sound alone will conjure that film forever.
In this, Michael Nyman failed. The Composer has more than seventy-five films to his name. Of them, I can only make claim to having seen The Piano and Gattica. Both were unassuming soundtracks, nothing that stands out, but nothing that destroyed the film either. His compositions for The Libertine were rote, repetitive and overwhelmingly dull. I can say the film may have faired better with no music at all, as the continual recycling of the same refrain over and over grew to be an irritation more than any form of mood bolstering symphony. Harsh? Perhaps...but at nearly two full hours, a film with the same 1 min song on repeat would drive a person insane. In fact, I do believe that is a contemporary torture technique. While this soundtrack is still preferable to anything written by Brittany Spears or Avril Levine, it grated my nerves no less.
Again, I must say that this is a film worth watching at least once. The value of the performances and the writing well outweigh the misdirection of the overall project. Re-edited with a richer soundtrack and I think this film would be worthy of a menagerie of awards. It was nominated for seven British Academy Awards, of those it won one, and of them they were all earned save, in my opinion, the two nominations for the director. Sorry Laurence, nothing personal; but you have no other films to your name and as a producer, I would be hesitant to give you money. As a graphic designer, commercial and music video director, Lawrence Dunmore's work is not only incredible, but also quite prestigious . He is a member of Ridley Scott Associates, and to me, anything with Scott's name attached is hail-worthy.
At the risk of losing my focus, I will leave you with the same lesson exchanged from Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, to his young new companion, Billy Downs.
Rochester: And yet you do not draw the moral of the incident.
Billy Downs: Which is?
Rochester: That any experiment of interest in life will be carried out at your own expense. Mark it well.
And so we shall, at 114 minutes expended.