The Libertine (18) <br/> Stoned (15)

The Britfop boys totally wig out
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The Independent Culture

This week, two Heritage Bad Boys: the Restoration playwright and poet John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, and the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, whose lives and deaths are recounted respectively in The Libertine and Stoned. It may be coincidence that both films are out in the same week, or perhaps their distributors planned their release to tie in with the new Pete Doherty record, as a primer in Britfop history.

Given the Second Earl's roistering reputation and the advance photos of a bewigged, befrilled Johnny Depp, you'd expect The Libertine to be a salty old romp. It is that, but in language primarily. Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his own play, Laurence Dunmore's film certainly has the fruitiest dialogue of the year, crammed with outrageous one-liners of a decidedly vintage ring: a demi-mondaine, learning that Rochester's wife is accompanying him to London, snorts, "Bit of a waste - shooting jism up the lawful." Yet, for all the larking and swiving and the odd orgiastic tableau, The Libertine is an extremely sombre, thoughtful work.

This in spite of the jokey opening titles, which strain to make the film's subject relevant to our age: Restoration England, we're told, was a boom era for binge drinking, but "by 1675 the hangovers kick in." Still, this is about as Channel 4 as the film gets, and Depp's prologue to camera signals that the film will not aim to please any more than its anti-hero does: "You will not like me," Rochester warns.

He's right, to a degree, yet he has his poignant qualities. Jeffreys represents the Earl as an underachiever on a heroic scale, who chooses either to squander his poetic talents or to use them self-destructively. His play Sodom - staged here as a sort of pornographic Springtime for Hitler - is seen as Rochester's deliberate, malicious ploy to queer his own pitch with his patron Charles II (John Malkovich). Yet Rochester proves unexpectedly vulnerable in his pursuit and coaching of a seemingly talentless young actress, Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton): his real genius, the film suggests, is as a Svengali.

Given that the part might superficially seem to call mainly for swagger and the brandishing of kerchiefs, Depp actually gives as controlled and as introspective a performance as he ever has. There are some sulky, camp moues at the start, but Rochester takes on ever richer shades as a man both of his time and out of it, bitterly aware of the true nature of his epoch, who takes it on himself to represent (in words and in person) its worst excesses. Depp is quietly commanding, and even manages to bring darker, subtler notes to what threatens to be an excessively barnstorming scene, as Rochester limps into the House of Lords to challenge a vote on royal succession, wearing a silver nose over his syphilitically mouldering features. It's a slyly rakish performance in the Peter O'Toole league.

He's well matched by the supporting cast. Malkovich's King - adorned with Nicole Kidman's nose from The Hours - is less arch than you'd imagine, but heavily, haughtily Olympian. Rosamund Pike's Lady Rochester has a reunion scene of moving ferocity, and Samantha Morton's detached, defiant actress actually makes you want her to see her play Ophelia for real. Even amid all the standard period-drama trimmings - lashings of mud and cleavage, Johnny Vegas under a foaming peruke - The Libertine has a density of atmosphere that's very much its own, all candles, purulence and fog, with Alexander Melman's photography lacing even the most opulent surfaces with a patina of mildew.

At one point, Rochester wearily defines life as "a listless trickle of 'why should I?'s". That certainly describes the latter days of Brian Jones, as evoked in Stoned, the directing debut of British producer Stephen Woolley. Jones's own neo-libertine style might be described as Regency buck laced with R&B - Beau Diddley, if you will.

Stoned is part biopic, part lip-smacking evocation of Sixties dolce vita, and part mystery story, revolving around Jones's death in his swimming pool. Written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, Stoned could have been most effective as the study of a seemingly homoerotic folie à deux between the star and his builder Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine). The scenes between the two men contain the film's dramatic meat, heavily echoing the dynamics both of The Servant and of Performance, in which, it's widely supposed, Mick Jagger was really playing Jones all along.

Instead, the film shoots off all over the place, with Woolley indulging his taste for lavish period montages - Melody Maker covers, 16mm solarised freak-out footage, Kenneth Anger pastiches full of whips, tits and Aleister Crowley posters. The acting is mixed to say the least. On the plus side, Considine is taut as piano wire, David Morrissey is bullishly rasping as a Stones fixer, and Amelia Warner does the perfect Sixties good-girl voice, still carrying archaic residues of Celia Johnson. On the minus side, Monet Mazur is a ludicrous cod-Garbo version of Anita Pallenberg.

And personably effete though Leo Gregory's Brian is at first, he's increasingly hard to take seriously. It's partly because he's too given to demonic sneers, partly because he looks so unlike Jones's tarnished choirboy: a beefy bloke in a haystack wig, he's more like a Slade roadie helping out with the panto.

There's little evidence either of Jones's talent: he comes across mainly as a petulant stay-at-home with a taste for dodgy pierrot shirts, Little Lord Fauntleroy with a couple of Robert Johnson 78s under his arm. If only Stoned weren't so relentlessly tabloidy; Woolley has produced one or two sophisticated films in his time, but here he seems terribly in thrall to the frisson of a spliff and a flash of miniskirted Euro-thigh.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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