"I am up for it all the time," boasts the excessively randy Earl of Rochester (Depp). For those who wonder what this rapscallion is referring to, fret not: By this period piece's ten-minute mark, the 17th-century rake will have demonstrably dabbled in the debauchery that characterized the era of Charles II (Malkovich). Having sated his appetites too many times, the aristocrat has been reduced to the self-proclaimed "cynic of our Golden Age." Then he spies amateurish stage actor Elizabeth Barry (Morton) and wagers he can turn her into a proper thespian; faster than you can say Pygmalion, she blossoms under the bawdy gentleman's tutelage. Though the earl's lust for life is reawakened, the gambit will also prove to be his final undoing.
A Restoration comedy consumed with carnality, Laurence Dunmore's impressive debut revels in its own literal and figurative filth—you can practically smell the characters' dank bodily humors marinating in the muck-covered sets. The neophyte filmmaker already displays a true ear for language and eye for darkness, borrowing Barry Lyndon's candlelit cinematography to create a vision of decadent decline. Less developed is his facility with actors: Morton comes off as too shrill, Depp leaves no scenery unchewed and Malkovich proves he can do these costume-drama parts in his sleep. But Dunmore's bewigged season in hell is a shining example of how to portray screen hedonism properly. Like its antihero, The Libertine's libidinous charm makes most of its faults instantly forgivable. (Opens Fri; Angelika.)