Friday, March 24, 2006

No, not that Libertine.





In case you didn't know, Hollywood is a deeply unfair place. Endless commercial tat and second-rate star vehicles pour out - Basic Instinct 2 seems to have the honour of fulfilling both these criteria - and yet fantastic ideas for films kick around for years. Without Being John Malkovich, it's unlikely Charlie Kaufman's other scripts, such as the fantastic Adaptation and the eye-wateringly excellent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, would ever have seen the light of day - and yet the script for it was knocking about for years.

A similar fate befell The Libertine, the story of legendary 17th century poet, drinker and shagger, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. The Stephen Jeffreys play on which the film is based garnered a sheaf of awards when it premiered in the 1990s, and the support of big weird John Malkovich himself, after he played the lead role on stage. But money troubles, and the conflicting schedules of Johnny Depp and Nicole Kidman, the original choice for Elizabeth Barry, delayed the project for nearly a decade.

FInally, after Malkovich handed over the director's chair to first-timer Laurence Dunmore - they met filming a Eurostar commercial - and everything seemed to be going swimmingly, the British government decided to withdraw tax breaks from UK-based productions. It cut the project's budget by a third overnight, with just a month to go before shooting began.

Malkovich is able to put a rueful gloss on that period now the film's safely completed, saying, "you have to keep your eye on the prize". But it must have been a struggle, and also peculiarly painful to hand over the lead role to the much-younger Depp. But thank god he soldiered on, because The Libertine is as great as it is uncommercial.

In some ways, I can understand the mogul's twitchiness at stumping up the cash. Films about poets are usually worthy, but dull - I'm thinking The Hours and Sylvia - all cardigans and teary-eyed scenes in the kitchen. And how many people have even heard of the Earl of Rochester? He didn't produce any major works, preferring instead to drink and shag and dash off the occasional foul-mouthed squib. What he did leave behind is jaw-droppingly obscene, with language that would make Bernard Manning blush, and demonstrates a lively preoccupation with dildos, buggery and sperm. So the film was never going to be a later-period Shakespeare in Love, that was for sure.

On the other hand, I'm almost glad that Malkovich and Dunmore had to fight so hard for this film to be made: it shows. From Depp's magnetic opening soliloquy - "You will not like me" - to his final physical decline, no punches are pulled, no concessions made. The language is, there's no other way of putting it - foul. Within seconds, "cheesy erections" are mentioned, and the c-word appears enough times to make me think that somewhere out there the head of Christian Voice is crying. But it works - all the effing and blinding gives a curiously modern feel to the dialogue, but one that is actually accurate. "The fucking French!" exclaims Malkovich's Charles II, and you think: ha, plus ca change, eh?

The cast list reads like a dream. There's Johnny Vegas, playing it straight in an absurdly large wig; Rosamund Pike, doing much better than in her Bond outing, rising stage star Kelly Reilly as a tart-without-a-heart, and at least two of the blokes from coupling.

But if it's anyone's film, it's Johnny Depp's. By god, he's good. He's already one of my favourite actors, and here is the very definition of charisma. I really admire that the man's so eye-wateringly fit, but it really doesn't seem to affect him at all. He's just as compelling at the end of the film, covered up by a noseguard and covered in weeping sores, as he is in full bewigged fineness at the beginning.

He uses a bit of that drawling English accent I loved in Pirates of the Carribbean, but here makes it aristocratic and weary. John Malkovich even forgets to be John Malkovich for a bit, and gives a solid exasperated Charles II.

As the film's based on a play, the dialogue is all - but being a film has allowed the makers to lard it with close-ups and small gestures, intensifying the feeling of a psychological portrait. Rochester might have started the film by proclaiming that you won't like him, but I defy you not to, even as he drives his friends away and pisses his (considerable) talent against the wall.

The look of the film is fascinating too. Time Out praised its 'fogbound, piss-stained visuals' and that's a pretty good summation. Everyone seems to spend their time getting out of coaches into knee-deep mud, and you really get the sense that everything, and everyone, stinks. There's a particularly repellent bit near the end where Rochester's wife (Pike) embraces him about a minute after you've watched him piss himself. You get the feeling this might have been par for the course in Stuart England, and it certainly explains why the verse is so relentlessly obsessed with bodily functions - they weren't hidden away in a haze of air freshener and Cillit Bang, they were right there on your shoe. Kelly Reilly, as the poet's prostitute lover, is actually smeared in mud.

Criticisms? Perhaps it is a smidge too long, and I'm not that interested in the subplot of the nice young man who falls in with Rochester's motley crew and comes to a sticky end. The English student in me also felt compelled to point out that the play Rochester writes is actually cobbled together from the poem "Signior Dildo" and a closet drama (ie one not intended for performance) which is only attributed to him. I think even the notoriously tolerant Charles II might have drawn the line at having prosthetic phalluses waved around in front of the French ambassador.

But that's the ultimate in small fry. Do see this film when it comes out on DVD in May... it's superb. And you never know, if it does well, we might get a few more Libertines and a few less Aeon Fluxes. And if you tell your friends you've seen a great film called the Libertine, and they ask if it's about Pete Doherty, give them a slap, will you? From me.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What happened to the post about cheese?

3/26/2006 6:25 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

it was rubbish, so i took it down.

3/26/2006 7:29 pm  
Blogger marrow-from-harrow said...

I am beautiful

3/27/2006 12:46 pm  
Blogger galatea said...

do i take this to mean you have a new post, marrow?

3/27/2006 3:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah but this one's rubbish too

3/28/2006 12:10 am  
Blogger marrow-from-harrow said...

Uh.

3/28/2006 10:51 am  
Blogger galatea said...

I see. What would you prefer?

3/28/2006 2:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More poetry but not about cheese

3/28/2006 3:25 pm  

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