State of the Arts

Johnny Depp’s royal romp is just the latest shambolic comeback film from a disgraced star

Hollywood loves a redemption story – just look at Robert Downey Jr. But there’s something equally fascinating about the comebacks that sputter. Depp’s new film – opening quietly in cinemas this week – is part of a bizarre sub-genre of movies haunted and enhanced by the offscreen troubles of their stars, writes Xan Brooks

Friday 19 April 2024 06:00 BST
Don’t call it a comeback: Mel Gibson in ‘The Beaver’, Johnny Depp in ‘Jeanne du Barry’ and Lindsay Lohan in ‘The Canyons’
Don’t call it a comeback: Mel Gibson in ‘The Beaver’, Johnny Depp in ‘Jeanne du Barry’ and Lindsay Lohan in ‘The Canyons’ (Shutterstock/Stéphanie Branchu/Why Not Productions/Post Empire Films)

Jeanne du Barry is a powdered and periwigged costume drama, pungently set in the palace of Louis XV and positively teaming with scheming courtiers. The first rule of Versailles, we are told, is never turn your back on the king. The courtiers may exit his presence with shuffling steps, bowing and scraping all the while. But whatever they do, they mustn’t give him the cold shoulder. It would make the king feel unloved and ignored by his subjects. It might make him think he’s done something to upset them.

In Jeanne du Barry, which opened quietly in UK cinemas this week, the king is played by a sad-eyed Johnny Depp, a Hollywood superstar turned pariah, dogged by accusations of domestic abuse and now shunned by many of the studios that once ran to greet him. The role of Louis XV is his first acting job in three years. Does that make it a comeback? Even Depp has his doubts. “I keep hearing this word ‘comeback’ and I wonder about that, because I didn’t really go anywhere,” he told reporters ahead of the film’s premiere. “Maybe people stopped calling, but I didn’t go nowhere. I’ve been sitting around.”

On-screen, Depp’s the king. Off screen, he’s like a 21st-century Norma Desmond, mouldering in his mansion and largely forgotten by the public. The 60-year-old is still big, it’s just the films that got small. Which is to say that Jeanne du Barry is a French-language co-production, largely bankrolled by Saudi cash, that was unveiled without fuss in central London this week. “Johnny Depp flashes yellowing smile at fans,” ran the ungallant headline in Metro the next morning. I see this as the journalistic equivalent of exiting the king’s presence: a dutiful curtsey while shuffling backwards at speed.

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