"You will not like me," promises Johnny Depp's avowedly decadent Earl of Rochester in The Libertine only to swagger through a story that's positively jerry-rigged to earn our admiration. There's plenty of debauchery in this muddy, dimly lit tour of 17th-century Britain, but the title character comes off as more of a spectator than an active participant. He's got grander matters on his mind.
Brought back from exile by King Charles II (John Malkovich), the swinging Earl concentrates less on conducting himself like a political liability than in standing up for his aesthetic principles. Beneath his dalliance with orgies, he's a poet and drama patron dedicated to the conveyance of truth via art. The professional theater of the day may be a licentious cesspool, but it's also a place where a patient sponsor like Depp's can tutor a promising young actress (Samantha Morton) in the particulars of her craft. You saw this mentorship-amid-ribaldry routine done far better in the sprightly Stage Beauty; in contrast, The Libertine is dingy and dark, using the trappings of rot to mask its central goody-two-shoedness. A dog takes a dump on camera, epitomizing art direction that's dedicated to morbid excess.
That's all just window-dressing, though, and it's a distraction from Depp's surprisingly controlled performance, which shows the least kinship to animatronics of any of his recent roles. He once again acts as if it means something even when the script abandons all pretense of rebellion by having him show up in court to defend the king's honor, steadying his now-syphilitic body with a cane and wearing a silver face guard where his nose used to be. Let's see Depp try to BS interviewers that he didn't base that bit on Michael Jackson.