Do we like John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester? As played by Depp, this 17th-century nobleman-cum-travesty is a carriage crash of epic proportions, and so it’s difficult not to crane your neck around to get a better view of the proceedings. What you spy at the beginning of Dunmore’s exorbitantly dark (both literally and figuratively) film is a scheming ne’er-do-well in the mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know mold. Wilmot is an anti-romantic poet with a notion of romance that scarcely runs the length of his (so they say) not inconsiderable although generally inconsiderate, um, tallywhacker. He is also a functional court jester to King Charles II (Malkovich), whom he spends much of his time impressing with various outrageous acts of pseudo-rogueishness. Wilmot's a nasty ancestor of Byron, Rimbaud, and Kerouac, but, this being one of Malkovich’s aptly named Mr. Mudd productions, it feels more than a little like a dangerous liaison of a different sort. Malkovich gets mad props for acting his way around a monstrous prosthetic nose, but he’s hamstrung by Depp’s fun-at-all-costs Earl. Wilmot opens the film in hale health, addressing the audience with a haughty, careless, “You will not like me” and closes it with blackened choppers, a syphilitic un-nose, and excrement-soiled leggings, while querulously begging, “Do you like me now?” In between, Depp runs away with the show, cackling all the while and defiling beauty in all its forms along the way. Or trying to; his Wilmot seems to make sport of it and it’s a game he mastered long before his oozy demise at the overripe young age of 33. The nominal plot has the ever-randy Wilmot chasing skirt in the form of Morton’s Elizabeth Barry, a faux naif proto-starlet who has one eye on the stage and the other, wisely, on him. He seeks to couple with and/or despoil, or, just possibly, assist her in her theatrical endeavors, but the film is so dimly lit at times (one assumes for the sake of period detail) that it’s hard to make out who, exactly, is groping whom. In the meantime, Wilmot the poet whiles away the days snarkily penning rhymes that give fresh-squeezed meaning to the phrase cunning-stuntery and rival anything Lil' Kim’s offered up in ages. (Tellingly, she’s in prison at the moment.) Dunmore’s version of Wilmot is fun stuff if you’re the sort of person who believes Shakespeare in Love
would have benefited from more pox and longs to hurl a coagulating coating of night soil over most Merchant Ivory productions. If you can cut a peephole through the murk long enough to catch a glimpse, it has some choice words to say about following one’s heart in matters of art. Wilmot’s art, regrettably, was tied up in his trousers as much as in his familiarity with his inner thesaurus, with the end result being a slow but steady rechristening to something very much along the lines of Mr. Mudd. Nevertheless, we like him.