THE LIBERTINE marks another successful step in Johnny Depp's seemingly deliberate attempt to destroy his status as a sex symbol. This ongoing trend—foreshadowed by Depp's too-dirty-to-be-hot river rat in Chocolat, solidified with his turn as the swishy J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, and creepily intensified with his pedophiliac Willy Wonka—finds its fulfillment in The Libertine, as Depp plays a syphilitic nobleman whose condition deteriorates until he is barely recognizable as human. By the end of the film, his face has been eaten away, and his nose replaced by a metal prosthetic. This is the single prevailing motif developed in the film: watching Depp's depraved nobleman rot away until his exterior is as ugly as his interior.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, was a 17th century poet and theater-lover who drank his way to an early grave, squandering the affections of the king and of beautiful women alike. While the film's plot ostensibly hinges on Wilmot's relationship with Elizabeth Barry (played by the infinitely likeable Samantha Morton), a young woman whom he trains to become the most successful actress of her time, this love affair pales next to the more captivating drama of Wilmot's inexplicable yet systematic self-destruction.
Depp's performance is central to the film: Everything else—his romance with Barry, his masochistic relationship with his wife, and his inexplicable betrayal of the king—barely penetrates the visual murk that characterizes this movie. Depp is malicious and delicious in the first half of the film, when Wilmot is at the height of his power and fame, seducing Barry and producing a theatrical revue so scandalous it gets him exiled. But so much transgression comes at a price, and the second half of the movie is spent painstakingly documenting Wilmot's increasingly gross deterioration. Once he gets the metal nose, the fun seeps out of the film like pus from Depp's oozing face, until all that's left are the tired, common sense reminders that too much drug use makes you ugly, and that you should always use a rubber if you're going to sleep with whores.