With the English Civil War and the ascent of Oliver Cromwell, Britain's cultural climate took a pendulous swing toward Puritan repression. But pendulums have a way of swinging back, and when Charles II assumed the throne, it swung back hard in the Restoration. Piety still had a lot of currency, but the theatrical productions of the day reveal what the age really valued: wit, high living, and a playful hypocrisy that acknowledged that men and women could hardly be expected to be good all, or even most, of the time. Drawing from a more recent theatrical excursion into the era, The Libertine adapts Stephen Jeffreys' play of the same name and posits John Wilmot, the Second Earl Of Rochester, as the spirit of the age. A composer of witty, sometimes pornographic verse, Rochester, by the most reliable accounts, lived well, took Elizabeth Barry—the most famous actress of the Restoration stage—as a mistress, performed profitable scams when banished from court, rarely sobered up, and died young after a deathbed refutation of his wicked ways.
Jeffreys picks and chooses from the Wilmot legend, attempting to portray the man in full without worrying who's shocked by it. "You will not like me," star Johnny Depp warns, and he isn't wrong. Unfortunately, director Laurence Dunmore never finds his way beyond that initial sentiment. A charming rogue for about half a reel, an insufferable boor for the rest of the film, Depp's Wilmot stomps through dirty London streets on his way from one debasement to another. The film gives time to his relationship with Barry (well-played by Samantha Morton, who always plays well) and Charles II (John Malkovich, who's played the Wilmot role on stage), but nothing really comes of either. They're just more people for him to disappoint.
It's a case of ideal casting in search of dramatic direction. Depp inhabits the role, playing Wilmot as a 17th-century rock star. But as one self-destructive binge follows another, it's difficult to see the point of it all. Depp takes no joy in his existence, but neither does anyone else. The film proves his cynicism bankrupt, but no more bankrupt than the competing philosophies around it, and Depp's climactic gesture feels as empty as all the mindless shagging that's preceded it. Dunmore creates a memorably grimy London, but the moral grime covering the film proves less memorable.