Dir. Laurence Dunmore. UK. 2005. 114mins.

Resurfacing 14 months after its Toronto premiere as awork in progress, The Libertine hasnot improved with time, even after an extra year in the editing suite.

Despite a sharp bounce fromJohnny Depp's deliciously suggestive performance as the titular Earl ofRochester, Laurence Dunmore's debut feature feels lacklustre and is marred bymediocre production values and the need for more dramatic coherence in places.

Following its world premiereat the AFI on Nov 11, The Libertineopens in New York and Los Angeles for an awards-qualifying run on Nov 25, expanding wide on Jan 13 2006. The Weinstein Company, which is releasing the film domestically, will have tocounter likely negative critical buzz and the feature's dark tone, althoughDepp, as the marketing centrepiece, can but help the promotional challenge.

The Libertine is no light take on the notion of a lascivious rake, as seen with BuenaVista's Casanova (released on Dec25). Rather it is closer - but with a darker, harder edge - to Philip Kaufman'sQuills, in which Geoffrey Rush playedthe Marquis De Sade, another individual operating outside convention.

Certainly audiencesexpecting the prestige and glamour of Miramax's past period dramas like The English Patient or Shakespeare In Love are likely to bedisappointed. That said, it should still enjoy passable returns, playing at theupper end of arthouse or the lower end of multiplex circuits.

In the UK - where it hasbeen nominated for eight British Independent Film Awards, tying with Mrs Henderson Presents for the most nods- it opens through Entertainment on Nov 18.

Originally penned for thestage by Stephen Jeffreys - who has also adapted here - The Libertine premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1994; twoyears later John Malkovich took the role of the real-life John Wilmot, the secondEarl of Rochester and 17th-century fop and poet, at Chicago's SteppenwolfTheatre (in the screen version he assumes the mantle of King Charles II).

"You will not like me,"Rochester (Depp) says in the direct-to-camera address that opens proceedings.Set in 1675, during the reign of Charles II, it imagines its protagonist as anEnglish Marquis De Sade, with wit, sexual compulsions and casual debaucherythat lend him an out-sized reputation as a dandy rogue.

Openly cruel toward his wife(Pike), Rochester prefers the companionship of the whores who populate London'stheatre district. Chancing upon Elizabeth Barry (Morton), a beautiful, ifunskilled actress, he takes slavish devotion to her, offering rigorous privateinstructions and training that improbably transform her into a leading figureof the theatre.

But their tentative affairis interrupted by the King's demands on Rochester, which eventually see himcommissioned to write a play to help forge economic alliances with the French.Naturally, Rochester turns the production into an epic act of defiance, punctuatedby sexually mocking and obscene vignettes that incur the king's wrath andprecipitate the earl's social banishment.

While his accentoccasionally fluctuates, Depp again proves himself both as a great actor and agreat image. He infuses the part with a swagger and elegant nastiness, evenmanaging some gravitas and depth in the closing sequences that painfullydocument his character's tragic dissolution.

But this screen incarnation ofRochester is too much of a self-absorbed, narcissistic cypher that only allowsDepp to show limited emotional connection. It also timidly eliminates all thesource material's homoerotic suggestiveness.

The direction fails to bringthe necessary forcefulness and fluidity, and there is too little dramatic shapeto proceedings. The screenplay also remains unbalanced in tone, lurching fromevent to event rather than accumulating the necessary detail and socialobservation

The relationship between Rochesterand Barry is under-developed and suffers accordingly. Samantha Morton is aterrific actress, but she has a modern sensibility, feels miscast and has toolittle screen-time.

Similarly John Malkovich -unrecognisable under wig and moustache - acquits himself adequately but seemsto be passing through.

Emphasis is placed on physicalbackground details and atmosphere, as if Dunmore is trying to disguise The Libertine's origins as a play.Particular focus is placed on 17th-century London's glowering smoke, dirt andgrime, but it only results in a dull and dreary mood.

In doing so the film becomestoo claustrophobic; too often compositions feel cramped, and the framing offaces and editing likewise feel jittery and without rhythm.

Production companies
Mr Mudd
Odyssey Motion Pictures
Isle of Man Films
First Choice Films

US distribution
Weinstein Company

International sales
Odyssey Entertainment

Executive producers
Chase Bailey
Steve Christian
Louise Goodsill
Ralph Kamp
Colin Leventhal
Marc Samuelson
Peter Samuelson
Donald A. Starr
Daniel JB Taylor

Lianne Halfon
John Malkovich
Russell Smith

Stephen Jeffreys, based on his play

Alexander Melman

Jill Bilcock

Production design
Ben Van Os

Michael Nyman

Main cast
Johnny Depp
Samantha Morton
John Malkovich
Francesca Annis
Rosamund Pike
Tom Hollander
Richard Coyle
Trudi Jacksons