We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The Libertine: Surreal nihilism (& more diary) · 13 March 06

My dear Anne,

The Admiral, Yvette, and I went to see Laurence Dunmore’s The Libertine Sunday afternoon (screenplay Stephen Jeffreys, a joint-company product), and I write to tell you that it’s been mostly misrepresented by establishment reviewers. It’s grim, intelligent, absorbing, and in its filmic partial way true to the vision we find in John Wilmot, the 2nd earl of Rochester’s (1647-1680) poems and life.

While there are some scenes in very questionable taste (particularly in the staging of Rochester’s play, Sodom, a huge penis is brought on stage, and the women are made to make love to dildoes), it is for the most part a genuine attempt to provide a filmic equivalent of Rochester’s erotic and nihilistic poetry as well as a theatrical interpretation of his character. The script did include many lines of Rochester’s poetry—though the choice was basically from the raw sexualized poems. He did write many such, viz.,

The Debauchee

I rise at eleven, I dine about two,
I get drunk before seven, and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when for fear of a clap,
I dally about her, and spew in her lap;
There we quarrel and scold till I fall asleep,
When the jilt growing bold, to my pocket does creep;
Then slyly she leaves me, and to revenge the affront,
At once my lass and my money I want.
If my chance then I wake, hot-headed and drunk,
What a coyl do I make for the loss of my punk:
I storm, and I roar, and I fall in a rage,
And missing my lass, I fall on my page:
Then cropp-sick, all morning I rail at my men,
And in bed I lie yawning till eleven againe.

The real Wilmot did not spare himself.

Many of the known incidents of Rochester’s life are included (theatrically rearranged and conflated), and real individuals turn up: Sedley, Harris, George Etheridge (Tom Hollander). An attempt is made (similar to that in Stage Beauty) to give the audience some sense of what the later 17th theatrical stage looked like and its audience behavior. The satiric exposure of the desperation, loneliness and posing, and cold selfishness, guardedness of human interactions is bitter. The mood was surreal, some of the shots often had a mesmerizing oneiric beauty; strangeness and neurotic wildness were the ways through characters ordered their release. The incessant drinking, sudden death of Rochester’s young friend (Downs, an event that actually happened), and his cowardly flight, the turning to mountebank antics in the streets, even the continual mud and raw close-ups made a statement about how the Restoration is seen popularly which is also a reading of how our public arena turns bizarre as all pretense at morality is dropped.

The closest equivalent in feel I can think of is Liliana Cavani’s 1974 Night Porter (story by Barbara Alberti), featuring Dirk Bogarde (for an earlier era in type much like Depp) and Charlotte Rampling (ditto in type much like Reilly). Yvette said the names of the team which shot and made the costumes for The Girl with the Pearl Earring were at work at the scene painting and dress of this film: its beauty and historicity (even if overdone) kept it from the image of black despair and sordidness that Night Porter managed.

Johnny Depp’s performance was stunning, every bit as nuanced and powerful as any of the actors nominated for the Oscars this year. He went from hard bitterness into deep depression, from debauchery to self-destruction, sicker at each stage. The film was no advertisement for promiscuity, alcoholism, and, like most films, taught the lesson that to cut oneself off from others is to court misery, self-hatred, death.

The rage behind his retreat and the whole trajectory may be seen in chris McCandless, the subject of a recent journalistic book (In the Wild by Jon Krakauer) about McCandless’s self-deluded blind retreat: McCandless was very angry at his father and had no one to turn to who could talk with him about what he so loathed and what he preferred to believe in and life out, kindness, enjoyment of the moment, the natural world); so he ran from a materialistic world made up of shallow cliques to become a raw corpse as ugly as Depp at the end in a bus. Depp was hard to look at in the end: noseless, with a terrible creeping frozen pus-mask on his face, his eyes glaring, his teeth rotten, walking limpingly on a cane. I remembered master and man, for the servant the arrogant Rochester hired and bullied at the opening of the film, one who was given very witty lines, by the end was hauling Depp about over his shoulder and way psychologically stronger of the two.

Two flaws: Depp never wept. But then a macho male norm reigned strong here; it was seen as pose, but the pose was not broken through explicitly by any attempt by anyone to reach out for affection. No tenderness in sight—except perhaps for a moment or two in the eyes of Kelly Reilly (Jane, a nonentity, a playhouse hanger-about, prostitute).

Then once again Kelly Reilly was given a part which makes her into a wry slut (this time clinging and untamed; in the 2205 P&P she was Miss Bingley as bitchy sex kitten). The masculinist point of view in the film does not allow any of the women more than a marginal role vis-a-vis the men, even though some of their moments have depth and intelligence. It’s not fair Reilly gets nothing nearly equivalent to a man. She’s been in a couple of serious stage plays in London, in Last Orders (thrown away as the young Amy), and been praised for her acting, but in the present atmosphere in films it’s only crumbs. Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry gets to speak sharp lines about the hard human predicament as she grows ever more self-contained and egoistic with experience; Francesca Annis as Rochester’s mother really did seem to capture something of the tone of older respectable women in public in this period. Among the more irritating statements given the women is the one Elizabeth Wilmot was made to repeat, how she loved being abducted; gratuitous fellatio was performed by Reilly as everyone’s Jane (on call). A print from the period suggests how the real woman in the era who could afford to dressed to protect herself when in the street:

"Winter", print from the 1670s

The Admiral may disagree but I thought John Malkovich’s performance disappointing: Malkovich was not given enough to do, seemed stiff, and altogether too aware of his fake long nose. Malkovitch does better with parts that include yearning and some depth of disillusionment; this film’s Charles II was manipulative, scornful, and self-centered. It’s important for one of the central relationships of the film is that between the king (as uncle-father) and Wilmot (as erring brilliant disappointing nephew-son).

We discovered the film was first performed as a play with Malkovich as Rochester and that he was one of the producers of the film, so lack of interest in the project couldn’t have been why Malkovich’s performance and lines were lacklustre. Jim remarked that the cast seemed to be taken from the BBC stable (two actors Yvette and I remembered well from Wives and Daughters [Hollander and Annis]). The film-makers did not assume this would be a big money-maker and hired actors where they were making the film (e.g. England whose greenness and beautiful old houses were featured—a sine qua non for BBC historical films). Perhaps not enough time and hope were poured into Malkovich’s key role.

The Admiral also suggested that the film-makers had had a failure of nerve when they released the film to only a few theatres, and then allowed it to disappear shortly thereafter. He speculated it was Depp who put pressure on the film company to distribute it and get theatres to show it. Well, Depp’s agent did as Depp’s had this hit in Pirates of the Carribean and they would like him to cooperate in sequels. The present version is a Depp vehicle.

The ending was the other flaw. David Lean may say that what counts for real in a film is what happens in the middle (the ending is pandering); still, the idea that Wilmot persuaded Parliament not to exclude James by that silly speech, his complacent death amidst much emotionalism made me long for the sudden shots ringing out at the close of Night Porter and the two bodies falling.

I close this brief review of the film and resume of Rochester’s life with 2 poems and a letter by Rochester. The chorus expresses the view of life this film meant to project. The second in triple rhymes (like Rochester’s Ode Upon Nothing), though lately wrongly removed from Rochester’s column, is still one of my favorites. It is by him). The letter explains itself.

A Translation from Seneca’s "Troades," Act II, Chorus

After death nothing is, and nothing, death:
The utmost limit of a gasp of breath.
Let the ambitious zealot lay aside
His hopes of heaven, whose faith is but his pride;
Let slavish souls lay by their fear,
Nor be concerned which way nor where
After this life they shall be hurled.
Dead, we become the lumber of the world,
And to that mass of matter shall be swept
Where things destroyed with things nborn are kept.
Devouring time swallows us whole;
Impartial death confounds body and soul.
For Hell and the foul fiend that rules
God’s everlasting fiery jails
(Devised by roges, dreaded by fools),
With his grim, grisly dog that keeps the door,
Are senseless stories, idle tales,
Dreams, whimseys, and no more.

Plain Dealings Downfall

Long time plain dealing in the Hauty Town,
Wandring about, though in thread-bare Gown,
At last unanimously was cry’d down.

When almost starv’d,she to the countrey fled,
In hopes, though meanly she shou’d there be fed,
And tumble Nghtly on a Pea-straw Bed.

But Knav’ry knowing her intent, took post,
And Rumour’d her approach through every coast,
Vowing his Ruin that shou’d be her host.

Frighted at this, each Rustick shut his door,
Bid her begone, and trouble him no more,
For he that entertain’d her must be poor.

At this grief seiz’d her, grief too great to tell,
When weeping, sighing ,fainting, down she fell,
Whil’st Knavery Laughing, Rung her passing Bell.

Rochester made this vulnerable shat-upon nothing, the lowest of the low, kicked out because powerless, and then laughed at, a woman.

A letter to his wife, Elizabeth, written in the 1670s:

"Deare Wife,

I recover soe slowly and relapse soe continually that I am allmost weary of my self, if I had the least strength I would come to Adderbury, but in the condition I am, Kensington and back is a voyage I can hardly support; I hope you excuse my sending you noe money, for till I am well enough to fetch it my self they will not give me a farthing, and if I had not pawn’d my plate I believe I must have starv’d in my sickness" (from Graham Greene’s Lord Rochester’s Monkey, still the best book on Rochester’s life and poetry).

The day George W. Bush was elected President Leslie R. and I put poems by Rochester onto ECW. The film was as relevant to this decade as any documentary called Enron and Fahrenheit 9/11, or, for that matter, the Jacobean, Syriana.

My day was otherwise good too. Balmy weather. Yvette and Caroline and I planned to shop tomorrow (Tuesday), do lunch, see Crash.

I had some pleasant exchanges in cyberspace, and there were content-rich intelligent thoughtful postings on Evelina on ECW, Victorian poetry on Trollope-l, and on WWTTA more talk about woman artists (recent), a both cynical and stupid return to defending rape as what some women and "weak" types want, exploitative pretenses by unscrupulous writers.

Alas, or on the other hand, Wompo (the women poets list) seems to be often a place active members use to advertise themselves and network, not a place where people really want to or do interchange thoughts about and poetry for itself. It’s good to see people making friends and contacts, and using the place for solace or companionship (or to discuss politics, which they often fall to), but the community in cyberspace and its message space is not seen as existing as an end in itself. To write there seriously too consistently puts the poster at risk of appearing to want power (what a laugh). A couple of weeks ago now one woman member challenged me to reveal my my hidden ("secret") agenda. I’m an adjunct hardly published at all as a poet; those poems I’ve done are all very early modern and simply put on the Net as they are not publishable without strong connections or drive and persistence I don’t have and compromises I don’t want since I’ve no recognizable career to support anyway. I really can’t fathom what she thought I might be trying to do. The "stars" of the list resent others not deferring to them as central presences whose tastes and point of view (because they are "famous," i.e., published) must be taken into account. These politics and the lack of effective idealism is deeply inhibiting.

In addition, the listowner doesn’t moderate enough in daily way. There was an (unacknowledged) indirect attack-exposure or criticism of her when a member "by mistake" put a long complaint about a recent guidebook she wrote for a book of her poetry in an attempt to make it sell (which apparently it hasn’t enough). The anthology of poetry she had engineered to be published from work by people on the list has caused quarrels, and may be seen as an attempt to find someone else to produce something that will be seen as respectable from the list to establish it as social capital ("significant" somewhere). So seething about this or that emerges.

There seems to be an awful lot of backchannelling too. Members prefer to post to one another offlist rather than on. Perhaps all is is a sign this is a list written in l’écriture-femme.

WMST-l (Women’s Studies) improved for a few days, but then again fell silent and people began to bicker acrimonously so the listowner had to moderate yet again strongly. I should say that moderation is no panacea.

Patrick Leary’s Victoria is remarkable and heartening for how under his leadership the people maintain a continuous level of informed mostly perceptive and friendly conversation about the terrain the list community is meant to discuss.

I’ve completed a first full draft of my review on the book on early modern women’s. Today I will be able to turn to Trollope and work towards a paper for the Exeter Conference during the day and save the women letter writers and Sophie Cottin for one hour bouts in the later afternoon or early evening.

It’s late. Nearly 2 am! I must get up early to take my car in tomorrow for inspection, so to bed. I do have more material from ECW and WWTTA on Angelica Kauffmann and will be sending this on within a very few days.

À toute à l’heure, Anne,

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. I told Caroline (offblog) that people were coming every two minutes to this blog, and some of them to read Sophie’s letter to Anne about The Libertine. She read said letter, and commented:

    "they released the libertine in december in LA and NYC as a way to try and get depp an oscar nod. he’s had one for the last two years running. but the reviews were Terrible and no one saw it, and there was no oscar nom. so they pulled it, and decided to do a wide release during the ‘dead’ months of february and march when there wasn’t a lot of competition.

    i’m sure depp also pressured them to do that, rather than just let it die in january. and he has a great deal of pull nowawdays … not just from pirates of the carribean which took him from the ‘difficult, ecclectic’ ‘indie film’ subset, virtually ignored by hollywood to a billion dollar household name. he’s also doing sequels: pirates 2 and 3 with disney. (he says it was because he wanted to do a movie his kids could watch). and he just played Willy Wonka in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory which was also a huge hit, so the film honchos have to pay attention to his wishes now …

    chava    Mar 13, 5:27pm    #
  2. I saw Malkovich play Rochester when Steppenwolf staged the play in the mid 90s—and really wasn’t thrilled. Our group agreed that the first act was fine, but the second act verged dangerously on turning R into a Byronic hero (which didn’t make much sense, at least not to any of the 17th-c. specialists among us). Incidentally, the dildoes were part of the original staging…
    Miriam    Mar 13, 9:52pm    #
  3. Glad to learn that The Libertine will be at a neighborhood theatre on Friday, my moviegoing day. My choice for this week – thanks!
    R J Keefe    Mar 15, 11:51am    #
  4. From Judy G on WWTTA:

    "I enjoyed your blog on The Libertine. I think I said to you when I saw it that I was rather put off by the dildo section and didn’t feel there was much of a sense of Rochester as a poet apart from the bawdiness – though I agree with you that Depp’s performance is powerful and harrowing. I thought it still felt like a stage play and I’d love to see it on stage. I was also disappointed by the grainy, dark look of the movie. But it’s one of those films where I find myself somehow liking it better in retrospect than I did at the time – so I will have to see it again on DVD and see if I get more out of it second time.

    chava    Mar 16, 12:07am    #

commenting closed for this article