Friday, March 10, 2006

The Libertine

Directed by Laurence Dunmore
Written by Stephen Jeffreys from his play
The Weinstein Company

This technically came out in 2005, but it's getting a major release this weekend.

One thing you learn about Harvey Weinstein in Peter Biskind's book Down and Dirty Pictures is his nickname, "Harvey Scissorhands," due to his penchant for gutting movies down to "normal" lengths in order to get more showtimes and so forth. The name has become ironic with this picture, as the man who played Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp, stars in a movie that appears to have been given the same treatment.

John Wilmot (Depp), the Second Earl of Rochester, is your everyday libertine: he likes to have lots of sex, he writes subversive literature, he doesn't believe in God. He's a sort of Shakespeare to 17th century king Charles II (John Malkovich). Charles wants Wilmot to write a play that will show coincidental to a visit from the French, stressing that Wilmot's creative inclinations need to be toned down a notch. Wonder what the libertine decides on that issue? Problem is, Wilmot has been rather uninspired lately, as his wife Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike) has been withdrawing, suspecting his frequent infidelity, and numerous other women (mostly prostitutes) can't satisfy him. His friends seem to be on a more creative roll than he is, and it adds to his resentment. However, he finds a project that gets him back into the game, becoming teacher and lover to struggling actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), whom he wants to use as proof that he's still got the fire in him. Barry, in turn, uses Wilmot.

I could go into what happens next, but it would already be getting into the third act of the movie. Indeed, there are several moments here that look terribly butchered. And it's a shame, because Depp goes all out in this, a great performance, and Samantha Morton is also good. The best I can say for Malkovich is at least he doesn't come off like a clown like he has in several period pieces previously--but his character drags the movie down in spots. Also, the movie is overdirected by first-timer Dunmore. There's some interesting, but unnecessary camera movement--and in one scene, with Rosamund Pike in the background and Depp in the foreground, Dunmore gives us a huge dose of rack focus where the person talking is in focus and the one not is out, and it goes back and forth, slowing down what on paper was probably a good scene. I can't fault the writing too much, unless this movie really wasn't chopped up as I suspect.

Kind of a shame--because I saw a potential solid movie here. As is, it's got the look of Swiss cheese.


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