Monday, 19 April 2010


“The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” - William B. Yeats

Please read this poem:

Absent from Thee I Languish Still;

Absent from thee I languish still;
Then ask me not, when I return?
The straying fool 'twill plainly kill
To wish all day, all night to mourn.

Dear! from thine arms then let me fly,
That my fantastic mind may prove
The torments it deserves to try
That tears my fixed heart from my love.

When, wearied with a world of woe,
To thy safe bosom I retire
where love and peace and truth does flow,
May I contented there expire,

Lest, once more wandering from that heaven,
I fall on some base heart unblest,
Faithless to thee, false, unforgiven,
And lose my everlasting rest.

It is a poem written by John Wilmot (1647 – 1680; Oxfordshire - England). Most of you will probably not know this poem nor the poet. What if I say he was also the Second Earl of Rochester? Some of you may recognise him now, but still, for the most part, most people would not have a clue as to who he is. Judging from the poem, you might guess he was some young, noble and romantic Englishman who spent his life sniffing the roses and delighting his virginal love with delightful poems such as this.

In fact, he was a rake and a libertine, a bisexual and utterly debauched, by all accounts already having a terrible reputation by the age of fourteen years. By the age of 33, John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester was dying, of syphilis, gonorrhea, other venereal diseases, as well as the effects of alcoholism. However, you may be pleased to learn that he repented on his deathbed… He was the ultimate restoration rake, immoral and dissolute, promiscuous and decadent. His short life was a surfeit of excess, and yet his fine mind was capable of logical, rational, original and creative thought.

All of this of course would make a marvellous film! And so I thought, when I chose the DVD of Laurence Dunmore’s 2004 film “The Libertine” with Johnny Depp playing Rochester and John Malkovitch playing Charles II. Stephen Jeffreys who wrote the play that the film is based on, was also responsible for writing the screenplay. I was not familiar with the play, but I knew of the Earl of Rochester and his (s)exploits as well of his poetry.

The film follows fairly accurately the biography of Rochester, and sets a realistic scene in Restoration England around the 1660s. The return of Charles II to the English throne allowed the English to return with gusto to the previously forbidden pleasures of theatre, visual arts, scientific enquiry and promiscuity. In the 1670s, in the middle of critical political and economic problems, Charles II asks the return of his friend John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, from exile to London. Although his friend John is a dissolute drunkard and cynical poet, the King asks him to help him raise funds by preparing a spectacular play for the French ambassador to earn the financial support of France. John in the meantime meets the aspirant actress Elizabeth Barry in the theatre and decides to make her a great star. He falls in love with her, and she becomes his mistress – to the dismay of his wife, Elizabeth Mallet. The play Rochester presents is a pornographic romp which openly satirises the king, causing John Wilmot’s banishment once again…

The film is bawdy and sometimes verging on the pornographic, so in this respect it is not suited to viewing by prudes. The playwright stretches his point and the director gleefully follows suit. The licentiousness of the Restoration after the strait-laced rule of the Puritans is accented to such an extent that it appears almost a caricature. Yet, much of the literature, the art, the documentary evidence of the time shows that our official history books (especially if they are deemed suitable for use in schools) must be necessarily bowdlerised.

The acting in this film is very good and Depp gives an excellent performance as does John Malkovitch. There is something very disturbing about Rochester’s initial speech that begins:
“Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me. 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 as we go on. Ladies, an announcement: I am up for it, all the time...”
It sets the stage and prepares the viewer for the onslaught that follows.

It is not an enjoyable film to watch, but nevertheless, one which puzzles and confounds the viewer at times. There is much there to digest and the questions about morality it asks are sincere and should generate much cogitation. I would recommend it with reservations and only to people I know would rise to the challenges of this film, which when viewed superficially could be dismissed as sensational and pornographic.


  1. Hmmm, sounds interesting, Nicholas. I'll check it out.
    I like the poem!

  2. pronography is 'in the eye of the beholder' and this beholder isn't going to hold it against the delicious Mr.Depp

  3. I viewed this film through Netflix and found myself wanting to ultimately own the DVD. Not because I loved the film. It is one of those films which succeeds if you do not love it. But as you point out it is a slice of history I think best not to forget.

    And the acting and cinematography are excellent. Depp is able to let go of who he is to become the rake totally.

    Thanks for your review and the slice of history.

  4. I dont think I'll like this one Nic!!!
    Thanks for the review....

  5. I dont think I'll like this one Nic!!!
    Thanks for the review....