Depp stars as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, a notorious rake and libertine poet in the court of King Charles II of England. Samantha Morton plays Elizabeth Barry, an actress whose budding talent blossoms and makes her much in demand under Rochester's tutelage. Wilmot and Barry become lovers. John Malkovich plays King Charles II, who is torn between his affection for Wilmot and the danger posed by his displays of contempt for his sovereign. Themes explored in the film include the corruption of a people by their self-indulgent monarch and the pursuit of hedonism.
The film was shot on location in Wales.
The story begins with John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (Depp), delivering his prologue, the main themes of which are his fondness for drink, his sexual proclivities, and his disdain for his audience.
King Charles II (Malkovich) decides to summon his great friend, the earl, back to London, retracting a year-long banishment for humiliating him, after only three months' exile. Rochester arrives in London to find his friends in a bawdy house; they are known as the "Merry Gang" and include George Etherege (Hollander) and Charles Sackville (Vegas). On the street, Rochester comes across a thief, Alcock (Coyle), whose frankness about his dishonesty impresses Rochester. He hires Alcock as his gentleman on the spot. The Merry Gang introduce its newest member, 18-year-old Billy Downs (Friend). Rochester warns Downs, "Young man, you will die of this company."
Rochester invites Downs to attend a play with the Merry Gang, where they see actress Elizabeth Barry (Morton) getting booed off the stage and then refusing to participate in a curtain call. Rochester is taken with Barry, and secures her re-employment with the theatre company after she is initially fired. Rochester invites Barry to meet him at the playhouse the next day to coach her in acting, and she hesitantly accepts. Barry's acting improves dramatically and she delivers a brilliant performance in her next production. The King then approaches Barry, asking her to spy on Rochester to keep track of his progress. A loyal subject, she agrees.
Charles, in need of money from France, asks Rochester to write a play in honour of the French Ambassador's visit. The king requests it be a "testament" to his reign. Rochester writes Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, a scathing satire of the king's reign, which he claims is indeed "a testament to Charles" — just what the king had asked for. The play involves live sex acts, vulgar imagery, and a brutal portrayal of the king, played by Rochester himself. At the premiere, Charles coolly interrupts the play, coming up onto the stage to confront Rochester. Later, Downs is killed in a sword fight outside the home of a Constable; Rochester backs away from his dying friend, whispering, "I told you."
Hiding from the king in the English countryside and sick with symptoms of syphilis, Rochester peddles phony gynaecological "treatments" for women, including the selling of "potions" made from Alcock's urine. Rochester's face has become disfigured by syphilitic gummata, which he hides beneath a mask. Charles eventually tracks down Rochester, but decides that the worst punishment possible is to simply "let you be you." Rochester returns to his wife, Elizabeth (Pike), admitting to having been constantly under the influence of "the drink" for five years straight. It becomes apparent that despite Rochester's health and infidelities, Elizabeth continues to love him.
Meanwhile, Charles' unpopular choice of heir, his Roman Catholic brother James, Duke of York, has led to a showdown with Parliament, which introduces the Exclusion Bill to deny James the throne. Rochester makes a dramatic entrance into Parliament, wearing a silver nose-piece and heavy pancake makeup to conceal the ravages of syphilis and hobbling on two canes. He makes a brief but effective speech, rationally and eloquently denouncing the Bill. As Rochester then hobbles off, the subsequent vote kills the proposed Bill. He goes to see Barry, who reveals they had a daughter together, ironically named Elizabeth like his wife. She rejects him.
Rochester returns home to his deathbed, where he dies aged thirty-three with Elizabeth, his mother, a priest summoned to "bring God to him" as she did not want Rochester to die as an atheist, and Alcock. Before he dies, Rochester asks the priest to recite from Book of Isaiah, chapter 53; he also asks his wife to retell the story of how he had abducted her as an 18 year old lady when they fell in love. The film then cuts between Rochester's actual death, and the death scene of The Man of Mode, the play about him written by his friend Etheridge. In a final irony, Elizabeth Barry is playing his wife on stage.
The film closes as it opens, with an epilogue. Rochester slips into the background in the wavering candlelight, sipping his drink and asking repeatedly, growing less arrogant and more vulnerable with each utterance: "Do you like me now?"Johnny Depp as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester
John Malkovich as King Charles II
Samantha Morton as Elizabeth Barry
Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester (née Elizabeth Malet)
Tom Hollander as Sir George Etherege
Johnny Vegas as Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset
Richard Coyle as Alcock
Rupert Friend as Billy Downs
Jack Davenport as Harris
Kelly Reilly as Jane
Clare Higgins as Molly Luscombe
Francesca Annis as Rochester's mother
The score to the film was composed by Michael Nyman, and released as The Libertine: Music for the Film by Laurence Dunmore in November 2005. The music represents Nyman's last score for a major motion picture to date, and his last soundtrack release.
The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 33% of 122 sampled critics gave the film positive reviews and that it got a rating average of 4.7 out of 10. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 stars out of 4 praising Johnny Depp's performance, stating "Libertines are not built for third acts. No self-respecting libertine lives that long. Johnny Depp finds sadness in the earl's descent, and a desire to be loved even as he makes himself unlovable. What a brave actor Depp is, to take on a role like this. Still, at the screenplay stage, 'The Libertine' might have seemed a safer bet than Pirates of the Caribbean, a movie [which] studio executives reportedly thought was unreleasable."
The film has grossed $4,835,065 in North America and $6,016,999 in other territories, making for a total of $10,852,064 worldwide.
The Libertine was nominated in eight categories in the British Independent Film Awards for 2005, and won in one category, gaining a Best Performance by a Supporting Actor or Actress in a British Independent Film award for Rosamund Pike. The other nominations were:Best British Independent Film
Best Performance by a Supporting Actor or Actress in a British Independent Film (Tom Hollander)
Best Technical Achievement (Ben van Os)
The Douglas Hickox Award (Laurence Dunmore)
Best Director of a British Independent Film (Laurence Dunmore)
Best Performance by an Actor in a British Independent Film (Johnny Depp)
Most Promising Newcomer (Rupert Friend)
The Libertine is available on DVD as of 2004.