"Sodom, Or The Quintessence of Debauchery"
by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester
This is the kind of film that Johnnie Depp loves, understands, and unfurls his nastiest acting regalia for. It's a swaggering role that he takes to extremes and excesses. In a prologue and an epilogue he addresses the camera as though he's speaking to a reformation England audience in his theatre. "You will not like me," he balefully warns, "The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less..." Perfectly convincing, rising from a soulful depth, this is theatrical art and magic, the quintessential libertine and, if awards were given for Best Monologue, Depp wins it with these first several minutes that justify the price of admission. Would that the rest of it were its equal.
In the comparatively enlightened time called The Reformation, more precisely, 1670 London, King Charles II (John Malkovich) accepts into his court as the 2nd Earl of Rochester, one John Wilmot (Depp), loving his spirited personality and proven talent, though perhaps not entirely aware of the rogue and troublemaker he will become.
That part of him is hidden behind the attention Rochester's receiving for the brilliance and daring of his pen, raising eyebrows in the lampooning of England's royals with sexually explicit poems and a satirical play, "Sodom or The Quintessence of Debauchery." Of course, he understands scandal, since he's the one reveling in it every chance he gets. This is an irrepressibly provocative personality but perhaps not as debauched as his writing would suggest.
With a reputation far and wide as a lascivious and wild womanizer, only one, a whore completely in love with him, represents here, the range of his roaming ways and the justification for his reputation. The other two women that we see in his life contradict it. The first, his aristocratic wife Elizabeth Malet (Rosamund Pike, "Pride and Prejudice") is a study in high class, by birth and bearing, who, for all the infidelity visited upon her, remains completely in love with him. The second is the fiery actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) who has never committed fully to anything but the stage and her work, but falls under the spell (and tutelage) of this particular scoundrel.
But he's not a scoundrel toward her, since he loves in kind, with great passion. Between the two Elizabeths, his debauchery is contained (at least in what we see here) by the engulfing power of his emotion toward one of his women. But, for an unexplained reason, he can't accept status quo and virtually throws away the regard the king has for him. He completes the king's commission of a play by writing and staging before the visiting king of France an inept parody about dildoes and then being forced to escape the royal wrath. He escapes into years of banishment, during which he wallows in his natural conduct, exposing himself to disease and demons, and returns to London physically diminished and close to death.
Despite the fact that this is all inspirational to great craft by the corps of players and crew, the missing ingredient is a failure to connect emotionally with the central figure. The character doesn't manage to get us on his side for want, perhaps, of a better understanding of the force that motivates his rebellion, nor to fascinate us sufficiently with the awe of extreme indulgence.
He's an enjoyable rascal, but screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys and director Laurence Dunmore provide us little more than brilliant language, visual thrill, a fine ensemble and an incomplete picture of the subject. One senses quite a bit of the real John Wilmot left out, probably in the interests of preserving sympathy and the pumping up of commercial prospects. What drives him? Why is he so self-destructive? Why does he challenge his own success? With so many questions left hanging, trust in the integrity of the depiction fails to develop.
But, don't forget, there's that opening monologue.
The Soundtrack Album