Saturday, March 11, 2006
Actor Johnny Depp has recently endeared himself to audiences with roles such as Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean, Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and J. M. Barry in Finding Neverland. But with The Libertine (opening March 10 in select theaters), he challenges audiences to accept him as The Earl of Rochester, a fascinating cad of a character.
The opening scene of The Libertine hooks up. Its a medium close up of Johnny Deppwith a long curled wigas the 17th century Earl of Rochester. Hes looking coldly, directly and defiantly at the audience. Then he bluntly and unapologetically announces, You will not like me. You will like me less as we go on I dont want you to like me that is my prologue. Whereas many films try to ingratiate themselves with audiences, Laurence Dunmores The Libertine is refreshingly bold in saying you dont need to like it in a warm and fuzzy sort of way because it will engage you with something more provocative. Just like the Earl of Rochester.
Director Laurence Dunmore says that he took this opening monologue directly from Stephen Jeffreys stage play and insisted on keeping it because it was such a provocative statement of intent, and a confrontation for the audience. I always believed that Johnnys powers as an actor would enable me to perform that open in a way that would totally engage the audience sitting on the other side of the screen. I think to have him offer up that challenge of not liking him, when everything you know to date of Johnny Depp is likeable is great. I felt the scene brought the Rochester character to life and essentially made that switch from it being Johnny Depp, the actor that everybody knows and loves, to the character of Rochester. Then the film became essentially his film. I used it really just to bring the audience into the film to create a challenge and a laugh that relates to the type of life that Rochester will be leading and to absorb them into his particular character.
Dunmore also says that the opening also makes an overt proclamation about its roots as a theatrical work. This was important because to Rochester, plays were more real and more compelling than life. So the theatricality of the films open, in which Rochester is playing and toying with his audience, is very indicative of his character.
The Earl of Rochester is based on a real person who may be better remembered for the scandals of his life than anything he ever wrote. Filmmaker Laurence Dunmore confesses that the more scandalous side of Rochesters life was all that he was familiar with. At a time when society placed strong pressure on its citizens to conform to certain moral codes, Rochester preferred to party, have affairs, and push the boundaries of art as well as social and sexual behavior. He was also his own worst enemy. Although he displayed a brilliant wit, a rebellious spirit and a gift for writing, he was also self-destructive.
I think his story is a universal and ultimately modern story, says Dunmore, Its a story about one mans betrayal of his talents and how that applies to so many people especially the brilliant and gifted ones. I felt it was a story that was not just about the sensational side of Rochesters life but also about trying to harness some of the emotional aspects of the man, and the life that he lead, and the people that in a way he loved and hurt. So for me, his appeal was really about the great writer he could have been, and he could have been one of the all time greats, but whose talent was wasted on his own self-destruction.
The Libertine was a project that actor John Malkovich (who serves as producer of the film and plays King Charles II in it) had wanted to make for years. After working with Dunmore on one commercial, Malkovich felt that he was the man to direct a film about the Earl of Rochester. Dunmore recalls that when Malkovich sent him the script he [Malkovich] said that he had been struggling for a good few years to make the film himself and had reached a point of despair. He said, Youd be perfect and if you dont make it, it may never be made. So it was sort of a double-edged sword he held to my throat. But one that I was immensely grateful for.
The resulting film, adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own stage play, cannot be described as enjoyable entertainment but its a compelling portrait of a fascinating man. Watching it is a bit like seeing a car wreck, you cant take your eyes away because you want to know how severe the wreck really is and if anyone will walk away alive. As played by Johnny Depp, Rochester is a man with a sharp, clever mind and a callousness about how his actions affect others, even himself. But the one thing he displays genuine affection for is the theater. When talking about the theater, he reveals a passion and tenderness that cannot be found anywhere else. His love of the theater leads him to approach a young actress named Elizabeth Barry (a refreshingly hard-edged Samantha Morton). Barry has just been booed off the stage but Rochester sees talent in her and is confident that he has the ability to draw that talent out. Rochester advises Barry to ignore those who dont like you, they are either stupid or envious. Then he tempts her with an offer: I can make you an actress of truth not a creature of artifice.
But she responds with suspicion. She suggests that it costs too much to tell the truth, and notes that she views men are hurdles that must be negotiated. She also worries that hes simply making a sexual advance. Then he reveals a secret: I cannot be moved in life, Im a cynic, I come to the theater to be moved, theater is my drug. This compels her and she realizes hes genuinely interested in her acting. Then another fear takes hold as she grows concerned that he may try to claim credit for any future acclaim she may find on the stage. She tells him that what I think you want is power over me. But eventually she consents to let him help train her.
The relationship between Rochester and Barry provides the film with a riveting core. Neither one of them is concerned about what other people think, and neither one seems concerned about being sensitive to someone elses emotions. Elements of the storythe 17th century setting, the King Charles II character, the process of a man teaching an actress how to actare similar to the recent Stage Beauty, in which a male actor who plays women trains a woman on how to act as a woman on stage. But the similarities are just on the surface. The Libertine takes a gritty, emotionally raw look at the period and it characters while Stage Beauty offers a pleasing, soft-focused take on its material. But there is no soft focus on the characters in The Libertine. The ambitious Barry bluntly tells Rochester I will not swap my certain glory for your uncertain love. And Rochester finds himself a victim for a change and tells Barry I shall never forgive you for teaching me to love life. No soothing words of love here.
For the Libertine, Dunmore wanted to create a world where, literally, as we made the film we felt we were there. It was not a bunch of smoke and mirrors. It really was as cold and as dirty and as scummy as it looked on the film, and in a way that kind of helped us all to sit there in the mire and really sort of live that moment. Theres a great tradition of wonderful costume dramas where the costumes are beautiful beyond belief, and the tailoring is exceptional and the designs are gorgeous and there never seems to be a fleck of mud on the hem. There never seems to be a depth; it always seemed too contrived to the period rather than being set in the grime and the reality, which is my take of that mid-17th century world.
In achieving this look and feel, Dunmore calls upon a talented crew, some of whom have won acclaim working with Peter Greenaway (A Zed and Two Noughts; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Prosperos Books). Production designer Ben Van Os, costumer Dien Van Straalen, and composer Michael Nyman are all Greenaway alums and are used to thinking outside the box when it comes to period films and filmmaking in general. Their work here removes the gloss from the period setting and adds grit.
Dunmore says that he wanted to work with Nyman because he loved Nymans sore for A Zed and Two Noughts. I just wanted to work with the man who had made that music. The whole kind of quirky Englishness of both Greenaway and Nyman, and the influence of the Dutch on that Englishness, it was always quite an attractive combination for me. I think my crew provided me with something I just dreamt about. They made what I had in my head a reality.
Also key to creating the look of the film is the collaborative work of Dunmore and director of photography Alexander Melman. The film marks Dunmores feature debut as a director and Melmans feature debut as a director of photography, but both had worked together on commercials. Whats rare about their collaboration is that Dunmore was also the camera operator (something only a handful of directors do).
I shot the film myself, says Dunmore, Its all handheld except for two shots. One of the reasons I wanted to shoot it myselfapart from insufferable egowas that it gave me the opportunity to literally be amongst the action, to sense and feel things rather than watching a postage stamp size monitor with the action going on and making my decisions on the feasibility of takes. So having a camera on my shoulder, as I did with all my commercials, allows me to create a sort of bizarre ballet dance with the actors whereby I was amongst them, in there. Often it would be sets that were literally without anybody else and I gave the actors the freedom to use 360 degrees, and that throws in the practically of lighting. You cant start seeing lighting stands everywhere and I didnt want to have artificial lights used in a gratuitous way just to illuminate a tapestry that happens to be hanging on the wall. I felt that by using the camera myself, hand in hand with my editor Jill Bilcock who was such a driving force, I was able to follow the performances as opposed to following the shots. So sometimes Id pull focus or not cut because the emotional line was so strong that it carried above the picture. It was a style that was much more about trying to capture the moment rather than trying to contrive to sets of shots created before hand. It also gave me a slightly dented shoulder.
The Libertine (rated R for language and sexual content) may never be quite as nasty as the opening scene promises but then maybe thats part of the point. In the film, a character writes a play about Rochester and Rochester says of the work you made me endearing. The playwright defends himself by saying, youre an endearing sort of chap. Then, says Rochester, you havent told the truth. Laurence Dunmore and Stephen Jeffreys attempt their version of the truth with The Libertine. They dont make Rochester endearing but they do make him an engaging character that ultimately elicits our sympathyand maybe thats something Rochester would question too. But audiences who might want or expect the gloss and witty sparkle of Stage Beautys period film will be disappointed by what The Libertine delivers because it chooses to deliver something quite contrary to expectations. And thats something Rochester would have probably sapproved of.