In Laurence Dunmores THE LIBERTINE, Johnny Depp plays John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochesterbrilliant, witty, reckless, jaded, and full of contempt for the society that fawned on him and could not see its own absurd contradictions. Rochester is a walking contradiction himself: a tender-hearted man nonetheless capable of the most callous behavior; a gifted observer of court politics who constantly yields to foolish, self-destructive impulses; a cynic searching for something to believe in, who finds passion and truth in the palace of make-believe
the theatre. That he dies at 33 of syphilis and alcoholism is not a surprise; the surprise is that we regret his passing so much, even though Rochester warns, in his first moment onscreen, You will not like me.
Filming on a shoestring budget from March 3, 2004 through the end of April in England, Wales, and the Isle of Man, first-time director Laurence Dunmore gathered a brilliant cast to bring Stephen Jeffreys screenplay to life: Johnny Depp as Rochester; producer John Malkovich (who played Rochester on stage) as King Charles II; Rosamund Pike as Rochesters wife Elizabeth; Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry, the actress who ignites his passion; and Rupert Friend, Kelly Reilly, Tom Hollander, Francesca Annis, Richard Coyle, Johnny Vegas and Jack Davenport in important supporting roles.
Johnny found playing Lord Rochester challenging in many respects: I think as an actor you have to constantly test yourself or push yourself
to go places that youre scared to go or you havent wanted to go, he explains in "Capturing The Libertine." You have a very serious responsibility to this guy [Rochester]
and youve got to dig down deep and go to places you dont necessarily enjoy going. Johnny had questions of his own about Rochesters actions and motives: How did he arrive at that need for such excess, and that need for self-medication? Because I dont think it was about fun for him. Johnny explained to writer Chrissy Iley, I think he felt too much. He was looking for an escape from reality, from his thoughts, his fears, his pain.
Roger Ebert commends Johnny's performance: Johnny Depp finds sadness in the earls descent, and a desire to be loved even as he makes himself unlovable. What a brave actor Depp is, to take on a role like this. Johnnys portrayal of Rochester echoes qualities Johnny detects in the Earl himself: [Rochester is] obviously a great, great talent, Johnny says,
but what stands out more than anything was his courage to be absolutely honest.
Johnny views THE LIBERTINE as his gesture of respect to a long-misunderstood and falsely condemned artist. For all his adventures and all of his sexual exploits, Johnny told Martyn Palmer,
he was quite sensitive and loving. When you read the stuff [Rochesters surviving letters and other writing], he was a very caring man and a great, great writer. As for his interpretation of the part, Johnny says, My angle was really ultimately an attempt at understanding the guy, and then trying to do my best to please him. So it was ultimately a kind of love letter to him.
Rochester would surely be pleased by the attention and respect THE LIBERTINE has brought to his life story and his too-long-neglected writing, and by Johnnys tormented yet charismatic portrayal of him, warts (and worse!) and all. As critic Randy Myers notes, By THE LIBERTINEs conclusion, we leave the theater without a doubt that we have just spent two hours watching one of our finest living actors shine.