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“You will not like me,” intones John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, addressing the camera directly at the opening of The Libertine. Because Wilmot is played by the ever-likable Johnny Depp, this assertion briefly seems an interesting challenge to audience expectations. Alas, scripter Stephen Jeffreys—and everyone responsible for this historical antiromp—got the opening speech wrong: It’s the movie you will not like, not its central character, who for all his vulgarity remains more vague than scabrous. Adapted by Jeffreys from his own play and directed by music-vid veteran Laurence Dunmore, the film compensates for its staginess principally with candlelit images that look even grimier than the muck—rats, sludge, various poxes—that pervades its vision of 17th-century London. The point of it all is simple: that modern bohos didn’t invent sybaritic self-indulgence. Wilmot really existed, and he really did have a quarrelsome friendship with King Charles II (John Malkovich, who has played the title role onstage, outfitted with a wig and false nose that cloak rather than amplify his trademark creepiness). But Wilmot was also an admired poet, something that doesn’t register in a movie that most often portrays him drinking and whoring and ultimately disfigured by syphilis. (Of course, it’s hard to balance the sublime and the ridiculous when your protagonist’s nose falls off, recalling Ralph Fiennes’ snoutless turn as Voldemort in the latest Harry Potter flick.) The sputteringly episodic story chronicles Wilmot’s relationships with the king, his wife (Rosamund Pike), and Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), the willful actress he takes as student and mistress. Morton seems entirely wrong as Barry, but at least the actress, who normally plays painfully withdrawn types, gets to thunder lines such as “You could buy my slit for a pound a night, sir!” Such provocations, as well as the handheld camera, bring a Dogme-style sensibility to the movie’s Masterpiece Theatre milieu, while Michael Nyman’s score evokes The Draughtsman’s Contract, Peter Greenaway’s subversion of 17th-century gentility. Yet The Libertine is unworthy of such antecedents, either in skill or contrariness: Its assault on the polite costume drama leaves Depp’s likability barely bruised. —Mark Jenkins