Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Libertine

The Libertine is a biopic about John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), and heaven knows we've all been waiting for one of those. Technically, Wilmot's claim to fame is as a minor literary figure who left behind a collection of intermittently admired poetry and (though the attribution has been questioned) one of the strangest plays ever written. Largely airbrushed out of mainstream literary history, and entirely unteachable in schools, all for reasons which will become apparent shortly, he's a footnote in history.

But, nonetheless, Wilmot is an interesting character. For many historical figures, the interest lies in what they achieved and why they did it. For Wilmot, it's quite the opposite. Despite evident intelligence and talent, he just couldn't be bothered. He began partying at university in his early teens, and kept going until he died from syphilis at age 33. Between parties, he fitted in a spot of writing, much of it jawdroppingly offensive. He lived an utterly pointless life, to the immense irritation of those who had to work for a living, and those who just felt he should be doing something more productive with his talents.

Among Wilmot's more ludicrous activities, he managed to get himself banished from court for several months after inadvertantly giving the king a copy of the wrong poem. He had, by mistake, given Charles II a copy of A Satyre on Charles II, which opens by applauding the quality of female genitalia in England; discusses the king's sexual inadequacies in some detail; explains what steps his mistress had taken to rectify the problem; and wraps up with the helpful information that "All monarchs I hate."

You can probably see why somebody wanted to make a film about him.

As written by Laurence Dunmore, and played by Johnny Depp, Wilmot is a nihilistic cynic. He's too intelligent to fall for any of the social conventions of the day. He's not remotely fooled by the trappings of royalty. He doesn't care what the uneducated masses think. He sees no particular meaning to life. Unconvinced by any of the usual social reasoning of the period, but without any particularly good ideas for what might replace it, Wilmot is simply making the best of it by having lots of alcohol, lots of women, and indulging random ideas that happen to cross his mind. And, it seems, winding people up for the hell of it. It's not so much that he's lazy as that he just can't find anything to motivate him.

The exception is his (historically slightly doubtful) relationship with Elizabeth Barry, one of the first stage actresses. Dunmore's spin on this is that Wilmot finds in the theatre the sort of meaning which is missing in the real world - even if it's solely man-made meaning. It's better than nothing, and therefore one of the only things that truly holds his interest.

All of this is a very interesting take on the character, and not surprisingly Johnny Depp's central performance carries the film on its own. Wilmot is such a powerful character that you can pretty much put him on screen for 90 minutes and it doesn't greatly matter what he's doing.

Which is fortunate, because as the story progresses, Dunmore seems to struggle to hammer it into a satisfying arc. A storyline about Barry reporting on him to the king is introduced and then simply dropped. His deathbed conversion rather comes out of nowhere. Supporting characters are often hugely underdeveloped. And the script doesn't get the best mileage out of Wilmot's remarkable play.

Assuming he wrote it, of course, which is still disputed in some circles. But let's go with the majority and assume that he did. Dunmore's script has the king pressgang Wilmot into doing something marginally useful for once. He commissions Wilmot to write a play commemorating his achievements. This stretches history to breaking point, since it's unlikely that even Wilmot would have been mad enough to respond to that commission with Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery - or indeed that the play would have made it as far as a performance in that context.

Nonetheless, Sodom was indeed reportedly performed once for a court audience, which is amazing by any standards. In the film, it's presented (rather superficially) as Wilmot just pissing off the king by handing in obscene gibberish in response to the commission. In reality, the play is far weirder than Dunmore makes out. Structured as a tragedy but played unequivocally for laughs (and with orgy scenes scattered liberally throughout), the play follows Bolloxinion, King of Sodom, who decides that gay sex is so fantastic that he's going to make it compulsory throughout the kingdom. Ruin and disaster ensue, along with plenty of mock-serious moralising and a lot of on-stage sex. The play features such memorable couplets as this: "What tho the letchery be dry, 'tis smart / A Turkish arse I love with all my heart." A committed and thoroughly active bisexual himself, Wilmot didn't believe a word of the play's heavily tongue-in-cheek moralising, and hammered the point home in the final act with some ludicrously unconvincing epilogues.

The play is not frequently performed.

None of this demented satire on attitudes to homosexuality - which has also been read in some circles as a metaphor for the government's attitude to Catholics - makes it into the play. In fact, the fact that it's a play about gay sex gets shunted to the side as well, with Wilmot's bisexuality only mentioned in passing in the prologue. This seems a very strange decision - it's at the heart of the play, central to the character, and you can hardly start getting moralistic when you're writing about Wilmot.

All of which, however, only really became apparent to me after I started reading up on him. In the context of the film it more or less works, but so much more could have been done with it. And it shows up the problem with the film, which never really gets to grips with Wilmot's intellectual side. He's still a powerful enough figure to hold the film together in the absence of a strong narrative, and on its own terms it's an entertaining enough film - but I find myself wanting to read a biography that deals more thoroughly with this fascinatingly odd character.