By Laura Matjusaityte (Ireland, Dublin)
The shifting career of once such an influential actor, Johnny Depp, makes me go back to all those amazing moments of his early career. One of his most memorable roles to me was in the movie ‘The Libertine’. The role of thirty years drunk poet was the right choice for Johnny Depp.
First, let me draw you a picture. Close your eyes. You see darkness. Now light a candlelight. It’s still extremely dark, but you are able to see some silhouettes. Naughty shadows play on them. You see some shimmering. It is the era of wealth. It is dark and muddy. It is the era of filth.
Movie director Laurence Dunmore knew how to transfer his audience into the era he was exposing. To get the authenticity of 17th century London the movie was shot using only candlelight. The choice of costumes fulfilled the mood even more. Darkish, cold colours, no brightness, no poshness. King’s attire looked almost the same as common servants, all of them- the rich and the poor-were washed under the same English rain. They all were the same primitive savages, with same body desires, same lust and sins.
The movies opening scene leaves you breathless. For the first ten minutes you cannot understand if you are too scared or too intrigued to keep on watching. Darkness. Just a faint yellowish light playing on somebody’s face. In pitch darkness he looks like Jesus. Did he try to look like Jesus? Probably not. John Wilmot The Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp) starts his monologue. You can barely see his face, just the palish skin and long black hair still gives you impression that there’s a man talking. Talking straight to you. Only you. He’s a poet, he’s a cynic, he’s a drunk man from a loyal family who likes to brag. He’s one more useless man with an undeserved fortune that he wasted on pleasures. With undeserved talent, that he buried in his drinking. The light shivers on the half of his face and you hear his words: “I am John Wilmot second Earl of Rochester and I do not want you to like me.” Now he has your attention. You want to hear his story. You want to see if it’s true.
The curtain closes. The candle light fades away. A different scene opens. London as it is. Rainy, muddy swamp with kings’ dirty shoes in it. And the king (John Malkovich) himself. Having a walk with his counsellors. He remembers his long forgotten friend the Earl of Rochester, which the king himself exiled from London, for his immature poems and his sharp tongue. The king has unhealthy attachment to this rebel and the decision is made. The Earl of Rochester is allowed to come back to London.
As it is said there are only three types of stories in literature: where boy meets girl, where girl meets boy, and where man chases the whale. This is one of the stories where the boy meets girl, while he is chasing the whale, when the whale in this story stands as his own destruction.
John Wilmot spots a theatre performance where the young actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) is being booed from the stage. The Earl of Rochester notices something that none of drunken fools can see. Somewhere behind the shyness and stubbornness he sees the talent. He pays the theatre to keep the girl with condition to be her acting teacher. There’s a hidden purpose in this noble act. It’s his need of something pure in his loose life. The only thing he wishes is to be able to feel emotion while watching actors pretending to live extraordinary lives on the stage.
Johnny Depp’s acting in this movie is simply a masterpiece. John Wilmot monologues are a mixture of great writing and incredible performance: “Give me wine, I drain the dregs and toss the empty bottle at the world. Show me our Lord Jesus in agony and I mount the cross and steal his nails for my own palms.” It is something that touches any era, not only dirty 17th century London. We all are doomed from our own lust.
I could not imagine a better choice than Johnny Depp for a role of The Earl of Rochester. Even simply acting like a drunk mad man he is able to make his face look like someone who knows all the answers and picked self-destruction as his response to the world.
It is hard to say why he is so great at performing a roles of dark and troubled man. It might be his own experiences that helps him to know how the cynic has to walk, talk or die. Or it might be just his strange looks that makes viewers follow every single movement of his.
Samantha Morton’s acting was breathtaking, both in the good and a bad way. She was so great at being bad, that you would think only a really great actress could achieve it. The scene where she stood on the stage, barely heard, booed by everyone. Her face was astonishing showing all the expressions a person would have while caught in such situation. Morton was so persuasive when she was Elizabeth Barry, the poor good for nothing actress, but whenever she became Elizabeth Barry the Queen of London stage, loved by everyone, her stunning acting died away. It seems that Morton is better at expressing failure than success.
To most of the viewers the movie might seem too vulgar, but the vulgarity is just one of the ways to express such era. It has to be sinful and ugly, because that is how The Earl of Rochester was. The great talent and the doomed soul couldn’t survive in one body.
It is a great example of one of the greatest moments in Johnny Depp’s career, where he one more time proves that he is chameleon who can shift between personalities like he owns them all.