Johnny Depp shows a darker flamboyant side in The Libertine, a grim look during the post-Restoration in 17th Century England. Its stage antecedent and pallidness kind of reduces it to something of a cinematic hangover.
Depp's John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, is an amoral free spirit, an interesting counterpart to his Capt. Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Carribbean. The opening monologue by Wilmot sets the licentious tone that he doesn't want to be liked.
The screenplay by playwright Stephen Jeffreys contains plenty of filthy, if rather witty dialogue. The debauchee's wife (Rosamund Pike of Pride & Prejudice) doesn't seem to be too bothered with his raucous lifestyle with friends (Tom Hollander, also of Pride, Johnny Vegas).
John Malkovich, who played Wilmot on stage, is King Charles II, who persuades John to write his own play for a visiting dignitary. That play turns out to be one obscene production, the farthest thing from "Peter Pan", that really puts him at odds with the King, from the characters to the props.
There's also a struggling stage actress, Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), who'll be given much treatment by Wilmot, and become more recognized. Morton's character is too underdeveloped as Elizabeth is wooed by John. But, she won't go down the black hole he's creating in a more decadent variation on Stage Beauty.
First-time director Laurence Dunmore establishes something rather sultry and there is plenty of bareness to go around for a film which worked around the NC-17 rating. The course is a measured one to redemption from extreme wretchedness. Dunmore works with his filmmakers to let the production take on a gloomy umbra as the dialogue gradually loses its more spry literary textures.
As the plot tries to avoid conventional melodrama, Jeffreys can't avoid what turns out to be like a parable. Yet, Depp isn't deterred by the haunting, pressing music and candlelit-like lensing. He finds his way in a sexually candid manner opposite the likes of an icy Malkovich, as well as Pike and Morton. After doing Willy Wonka, he lights up this cautionary, somewhat ill-defined tale. Inspired by true events, The Libertine shows the decline of a man from alcoholism and syphilis, and Depp takes the startling arc outward as Wilmot eventually loses more than one cares to see. Even within a smoky mist.