The Libertine is a sort of depression in Johnny Depp's career. The movie and Depp's performance are both entirely forgettable. He pulls all the old tricks, however, this time he is seemingly incapable of the innovation he is celebrated for. His character is so appalling and disgusting that it's no surprise his role doesn't impress. Those Depp fans with their heads in the clouds must finally admit that he is not infallible, but is just as likely to choose disastrous roles as any other actor.
The film chronicles the later part of the life of John Wilmot the Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp). A product of a depraved and difficult time in 17th century Britian, Wilmot lived a life of utter debauchery that lead to a premature death. He also wrote graphic poetry that exposed his style of extreme hedonism.
When the film opens, the king has banished Wilmot for publicly reading one of his lewd poems. The king, however, has fallen on hard times and in desperation calls Wilmot back for assistance. But Wilmot and his band of perverts have other plans. They promptly set to a life of drinking, theatre and whorehouses. Then, in one of the film's random plot occurrences, Wilmot decides to train an aspiring actress. His sexual intentions are obvious and like most of the poorly executed plot and underdeveloped characters, this twist only serves as a vehicle for Wilmot's brand of unfunny shock humor.
The king, meanwhile, is facing a severe crisis. He needs Wilmot's help and therefore solicits a "great work of literature" to present to the French ambassador. All of the characters praise Wilmot's apparent intellect but are revolted by his uninspiring behavior. When the king sits down with the ambassador to watch Wilmot's new play, his hopes are no doubt high while his expectations are presumably low. As the play begins, dildos are distributed amongst the audience. Female characters prance about on stage and finish with a close approximation of masturbation. Before the king rises in protest, a man rides onto the stage atop a giant, rolling penis. The king doesn't hesitate to re-banish Wilmot. The scene is offensive not because of the overt sexual themes, but because of the abandonment of narrative coherency for the sake of a ridiculous sexual display.
The remainder of the film unfolds like a book missing one too many pages. It's apparent that in the filmmaker's drive to portray Wilmot's nasty quirks, writer Stephen Jeffreys has forgotten to propel the story forward (a story, mind you, that has definite potential given more adept filmmakers). Coherent plot and crucial character development have been completely abandoned.
In a critical examination of Wilmot's poetry found in one reference text, the author designates Wilmot a "second-rate poet" within the opening sentences. The Libertine, as a character study, adopts the weaknesses of its title character. It is second-rate film and it perplexes the viewer with empty shock tactics more than it makes sense.