‘You will hate me,’ proclaims Johnny Depp’s seventeenth-century rake the Earl of Rochester in the audience-baiting monologue that opens Stephen Jeffreys’ adaptation of his acclaimed play. As roguish tormentor of the Restoration court, a poet frittering away his considerable talents on scurrilous and bawdy verse when he’s not whoring and drinking his way to oblivion, Rochester should indeed be loathsome, except that Depp captures a certain jeu d’esprit behind his apparent determination to rub the world up the wrong way. His latest perversity is his decision to mould second-rate actress Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton) into a captivating performer by encouraging her to draw on her own emotional experiences – as in ‘Stage Beauty’, historically fanciful shades of the Method – but the signs are that King Charles II (producer John Malkovich, mercifully restrained) does not have inexhaustible patience to expend on this wayward favourite. ‘It’s fun being against things,’ comes the regal advice, ‘but there comes a time when one must be for things.’
Unfortunately, the film finds major gear changes as much of a challenge as its protagonist, and when the time comes for a key third-act transition, first-time director Dunmore somehow lets the material slip through his fingers, with Morton’s typically persuasive contribution receiving especially short shrift. A pity really, since the fogbound, piss-stained visuals vividly convey an agreeably unsanitised vision of the period (even if budgetary restraints are painfully obvious), and Depp’s misanthropic impishness is much less self-serving than usual. No Restoration romp this, but a rather darker vision of curdled humanity, ambitious in intent, though slightly fudged in execution.