REVIEW: The Libertine (Lawrence Dunmore, 2005)

Enter the promiscuous John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester - writer with an aggressive inclination for debauchery and drink, living in the post-plague 17th century. He is summoned back to England by King Charles II after a year in exile and takes a struggling actress under his indulgent wing. Johnny Depp adds another magnificent performance to his collection in the long-shelved film adaptation of Steven Jeffreys' biographical play.

The Weinsteins nail a homer! After all the fantastic productions they accomplished with Miramax such as Scorsese's Gangs of New York, I was psyched to learn they were moving out from Disney's ever business-minded shadow (which will hopefully dissipate with Steve Jobs as a major stockholder) with TWC, The Weinstein Company. At the outset of 2006, however, their schedule was loaded with silly films that were the opposite of promising. Though in the midst of all the computer-animated kids flicks and redundant romantic comedies, The Libertine must have been passed over in the listing - possibly because it was filmed and set aside for about a year - but it comes through now as an excellent surprise.

The lead actor, who needs no introduction, should be draw enough to the newly wide-released film that was supposedly on limited release November 23rd (a date that prevents me from saying it is the first great film of 2006 a la The New World and Match Point) but he is worthily accompanied by the eclectically excellent John Malkovich (who also serves as co-producer,) the eternally miraculous and wonderful Samantha Morton and emerging star Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day, Doom.)

It came as no surprise to learn that The Libertine is based on a play of the same name because it feels very much like an elaborate stage show - it is in fact loosely framed with the idea of a play being written about the Earl. Steven Jeffreys, who penned the original piece, brilliantly adapts it for the screen. He channels Shakespeare with lush, darkly humorous dialogue and story progression, kicked off by Depp's spellbinding opening soliloquy. The subsequent scenes flow on as long as they need to, similar to those of Angels in America, developing a detached, dream-like trance for the audience.

The realistic, Oscar-worthy costuming provides subject matter that brings the dizzyingly involving and granular photography to a more intriguing level. We are given a realistic look into the feigning glamour of the times from long wigs to pasty makeup, transparently offset by the surrounding murk of the streets and brothels.

Director Lawrence Dunmore's debut is not to be missed in theaters. See it before it gets stuck in smaller venues - the big screen/surround sound experience is highly recommended and well worth it. Join me tomorrow when I enjoy it again!

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