Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Libertine (2004)

Ophelia played by Elizabeth Barry
Directed by The Earl of Rochester

A bawdy potential companion piece to Restoration and Stage Beauty, The Libertine portrays the fast life and slow death of the second Earl of Rochester, a soul who paraphrasing his own words, drank and shagged his away around London, all the while falling in and out of favour with Charles II before contracting the pox. As the lead, Johnny Depp gives one of his electrically intense performances but the real draw is the photography which unusually for a costume drama is mostly hand held and the entire work is lit only with candles, scene evoked magically through pools of light.

The incursion of Hamlet occurs in a Pygmalianesque story strand when the Earl takes a fancy to one of the new prostitutes turned stage actresses, Lizzy Barry (Samantha Morton) whom he coaches in the way of performance, as part of, unknown to her, a wager with his pals that he can turn her into the greatest actress on the London stage. She's to play Ophelia and he has her repeat the 'Oh what a noble mind is here overthrown' speech all day until she learns to speak it from her heart and not through some mechanical process.

As is customary these kinds of stories, her progress is described through a montage sequence that ends with glimpses of Lizzy's performance, a devastatingly good naturalistic reading which would certainly have overshadowed whoever might be playing Hamlet for a change (although she is all we see of the show). Like the production of Othello at the close of Stage Beauty, it's certainly anachronistic, but it's important at this moment for us to understand why the Earl has fallen for her and this simply wouldn't have worked if her passion had been filtered through the recognizable stage form of the time.

It's one of the those moments that sometimes crops up during play within a film scenes when the layers of costume and setting drop away and its between the actress and the camera and it's impossible to tell were the actress begins and the actress playing a character who is an actress playing a character ends. It would be a definite tragedy were we not to see Samantha Morton's interpretation of the role under other circumstances. Any chance of a new film version with Depp as Hamlet and Morton as Ophelia?