So, over the weekend, I watched Stage Beauty and The Libertine back to back. Both films are set in Restoration England, both films concern the theatre both films were themselves once plays, and both have fantastic hair. (You think hair was BIG in the '80s? Restoration hair makes '80s hair look tiny teeny small.) And that's where their similarities end.
Stage Beauty is a Hollywood romance. Billy Cudrup plays Ned Kynaston, an actor who specializes in playing women. Claire Danes plays Maria, his dresser, who longs to be an actress. When Charles II lifts the ban on women players, Kynaston is out of a job, and Maria proves an over-night sensation. Problem: Maria is playing Kynaston playing a woman, and Kynaston can't act like a man. Love fixes them both: Maria teaches Kynaston how to be a real man, and Kynaston teaches Maria how to Method Act. Cue the cupids and drop the curtain.
Meanwhile, over at The Libertine, we have Johnny Depp playing The Earl of Rochester, a notorious English rake, who was probably the most repellent genius that England ever produced, determined to squander his talents in the most degrading and disgusting ways possible. (Note: The Libertine is firmly rated R. You think people swear today? Restoration England might just have been the Glory Days of English Vulgarity. They had words for stuff we've never even heard of today.)
Here's another way to explain how different the two films are. In Stage Beauty, Charles II is played by Rupert Everett. In The Libertine, by John Malkovich. Need I say more?
Of course I do.
So Charles II is one of England's most interesting kings. He underwent some horrific experiences as a young man (father executed, years of exile), yet he remained affable and kind, albeit hard to read. Everett plays him as a bit of a buffoon, at the mercy of his mistresses, a sort of Pythonesque Upper Class Twit, who ocassionally has a flash of wisdom. Malkovich plays him as an inscrutable man of action, busy busy busy, but ultimately hiding behind a mask of genialness. The truth of the man is probably somewhere in the middle--and forever lost to us now. Both portrayals are accompanied by the requisite pack of beribbanded spaniels.
But the two different Charles mark the two different versions of Restoration England. In Stage Beauty, there is actual beauty. Cudrup is beautiful, Danes is beautiful, the clothes are beautiful, the theatre is beautiful. It's all so clean and Hollywood.
The only thing beautiful about The Libertine is Johnny Depp, and some horrific stage make-up signifying the wages of sin soon takes care of that. Everything is knee deep in mud. You can practically see the vermin crawling on the wigs. Even the character's attitudes are ugly. Rochester is set on ruining himself--why is unclear--and there's no depth to which he will not stoop. Depp chews the scenery in this one; thanks to the hair and the rolling eyes, it's impossible not to think of Jack Sparrow as he does this, but Jack Sparrow is a harmless Hollywood pirate, who couldn't scare a goose. Rochester is the kind of guy that if you saw him coming you would cross not just the street, but maybe the entire town to avoid.
If there's a flaw in Depp's performance it's that the character is inscrutable. The desires of Kynaston and Maria are easy: they both want glory on the stage. What does Rochester want? He shilly-shallies with an actress, but it's clear that his involvement with her is more than just love--it's some sort of obsession, accompanied by much speech-a-fying, hard to parse. Clearly he's driven but by what remained, at least to me, unclear.
Ultimately the two films both fail, I think. Stage Beauty could have been an extremely interesting meditation on gender--what makes a man a man, a woman a woman? Is it behaviour? Society? Sex? Which is more real--what we see on the stage or what we see off it? Instead, it opted for the Hollywood ending. The Libertine, well, I'm not sure what it could have been. Johnny Depp's performance is amazing, but in the end, something was lacking. I'm not sure what, but it was something I needed.
But The Libertine has a monkey in it, so it wins.
NB: Like I said, The Libertine is a pretty strong film, so if you are under eighteen or hide-bound, probably best to skip it, and watch The Pirates of the Caribbean again.