No pirates. No Caribbean. Not even a chocolate factory in sight. What was Johnny Depp thinking when he agreed to star in this wretched British stage adaptation? File it under the Incomprehensible Career Choices section at Scarecrow Video, alongside Dead Man, The Brave, and The Man Who Cried. Depp plays real-life Restoration playwright and wit John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647–1680), who gleefully snubbed family, propriety, society, and King Charles II (producer John Malkovich) for a life of dissolution, drinking, and whoring. Oh, and he also composed a few lines of verse, made speeches at Parliament, and tutored actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton).
It all sounds terribly fun and decadent, like Quills or Casanova, but isn't. Depp nails the accent and withers away gruesomely from alcoholism and syphilis—everything he and Terry Gilliam left out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His best scenes, rehearsing Morton for the role of Ophelia, are badgering and literally theatrical (which is why Stephen Jeffreys' script probably worked better onstage): He keeps forcing her to drain out the fake footlight emotion until she's left to express the bare truthful words. The effect, of course, is that you'd rather see Othello than The Libertine, even with Depp in blackface. And Wilmot the proud ingrate would probably agree.