"Allow me to be frank. You will not like me. I am John Rochester. And I do not want you to like me." Purred straight to camera, flickering out of the darkness, Johnny Depp's delicious opening monologue sets The Libertine's molasses tone in wicked style.
Barely two months since Rough Cut championed its cause as one of the Brit flicks pole-axed by UK film funding cuts, Stephen Jeffreys' acclaimed play finally completes its seven-year journey to the big screen. But despite (because of?) its modest budget, promo-helmer Laurence Dunmore's debut shoulders us face-first into a remarkable vision of the 17th century. Lost in a swirl of shadow and mist, Restoration-era England appears here as a gloomy netherworld, with DoP Alexander Melman's palette of muddy browns and fetid greens illuminated only by twitching candlelight. Long before we're pulled into a startling orgy montage that's like a living Francis Bacon painting - all writhing flesh and fog - it becomes clear this is less musty time-capsule, more slurry psychoscape for Depp's bad-boy Earl.
Major claim to make, this, but on a CV that already reads like a test-tube rack of mutants and misfits, Wilmot could be Depp's most outrageous performance yet. "I'm up for it," he warns us. "I'm up for it all the time!" And isn't he just... Binge-drinking, binge-swearing, binge-shagging; his poet-prurient struts the movie's throughline to booze-soaked oblivion with pornographic glee, his eyes ever-glassy with cynicism.
JM Barrie he ain't. Curling off the dry, filthy witticisms with gutter eloquence and cultured contempt, Depp ensures the somewhat stagey script stays every bit as mucky as Dunmore's rotting canvas. That said, it inherits a little of the murkiness, too, spluttering to crank up the film's plot-motors as we find Rochester wagering he can make shonky stage thesp Elizabeth (Samantha Morton) the finest actress in England - only to discover he's fallen in love with her. Elsewhere, John Malkovich is astonishingly restrained as the beleaguered King Charles II, who, having commissioned Rochester to write a spectacular play, finds himself watching a midget riding a giant phallus-chariot while carved wooden dildos are handed out to the audience.
Through it all, Depp's charismatic dark star continues to burn up youth and health with irresistible vulgarity. Thankfully, even on the brink of Father Jack-style self-parody ("Drink! Drink!"), the scenes of marital meltdown with his country wife (an impressive Rosamund Pike) spike the grand guignol excess with poignancy. Quite what we learn from Rochester's infernal free-fall from gross sensuality to just plain gross is debatable. But Depp finds soul in the show-off. And, for all his protestations, you will like him.