John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, is a particularly interesting literary and historical figure from the 17th century and Restoration England. This 2004 production, belatedly and somewhat haphazardly released over the last few months, has Johnny Depp and an impressive supporting cast telling Wilmot’s story, but the onscreen results are erratic at best—and generally dismal and disappointing.
Depp plays Rochester as a kind of terminally debauched rock star, which is not an unsound idea in and of itself. But Stephen Jeffreys’ clunky script (based on his own play) brandishes Rochester’s elaborate literary flourishes and paradoxical libertinism without ever establishing any compelling emotional core for what becomes an increasingly obvious tale of self-destruction and decline.
Director Laurence Dunmore and cinematographer Alexander Melman only make matters worse with a lavishly gloomy visual style and bursts of paint-by-numbers grotesquerie. Shadows, both actual and metaphorical, are relevant to this story, but the film keeps losing itself in its own literal-mindedly murky imagery.
The larger sequences tend to come off as unintentional travesties of serious “classical” drama. The production’s best moments, and its most trenchant characterizations, are in more intimate exchanges—Rochester with his increasingly disillusioned wife (Rosamund Pike), and Rochester with the actress (Samantha Morton) whom he takes on as both lover and acting student.
John Malkovich makes a surprisingly unimpressive King Charles II, and Rochester’s hedonistic literary cohorts (Tom Holland, Johnny Vega, Rupert Friend, etc.) and his reliably devious servant Alcock (Richard Coyle) somehow add up to much less than the sum of their parts.