HIGH PRIESTS OF HARMFUL MATTER : Stoned / The Libertine / Factotum

An article written for the November 15th issue of Tribune magazine

The Libertine
UK 2005
Starring : Johnny Depp, Samantha Morton
Director : Laurence Dunmore
UK 2005
Starring : Leo Gregory, Paddy Considine
Director : Stephen Woolley
USA/Norway 2005
Starring : Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor
Director : Bent Hamer

THROUGH what is presumably a coincidental scheduling quirk, this week (Friday November 18th) sees the arrival of three films based on the lives of hard-living, self-destructive, charismatic men whose artistic gifts only occasionally compensated for their arrogant, obnoxious personalities. Seeing all three in a single day isn't advisable – unless your appetite for debauchery matches that of John Wilmot (aka Lord Rochester), Henry Chinaski (aka Charles Bukowski) and Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones).
   OF the three, The Libertine most convincingly evokes the milieu surrounding its subject: John, 2nd Earl of Rochester (Depp), the Restoration's most scandalous enfant terrible. His poetic talents (which we have to take rather on trust) lead him into the favours of Charles II (a drawling John Malkovich), who reckons Rochester might do for him what Shakespeare did for Elizabeth I.
   Rochester's wildly hedonistic impulses soon scupper such ambitions - but not before he's romanced actress Elizabeth Barry (Morton, affecting) and schooled her into becoming London's most talented performer. As in Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty (2003), this means naturalistic acting is discovered some 350 years early: dramatic licence perhaps, but incongruous in a production which otherwise scores high marks for historical accuracy. 
   Assorted bodily fluids are thick on the ground throughout – and Rochester himself oozes plenty of them, his slow death from syphillis allowing Depp the novelty of repellent ugliness. It's the culmination of the meatiest role ever for this challenge-seeking performer, and The Libertine is very much his showcase: the picture is even bookended by monologues in which the saucily licentious Rochester warns us that – despite his charms – he's doesn't care if we like him or not.
   And the film, which unfolds at a stately – perhaps even monotonous – pace, is also much easier to admire than to like. The look of it is unremittingly gloomy: unhygienically Stygian in its brown-heavy colour-palette; interiors are dimly candle-lit, exteriors are often murkier, blanketed in omnipresent miasmal fogs. And with the camera permanently hand-held, it's sometimes hard to see what's going on. But that's just one reason why this is perhaps the most believable screen vision of 17th-century England since Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968) – and a welcome, bracing antidote to the usual British run of deadeningly 'well-made' period costume-dramas.
   Stoned, on the other hand, isn't much concerned with diverging from convention and expectation. A messy but oddly watchable version/vision of the final months on the life of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones (Gregory), it's a belated directorial debut from, and something of a self-indulgent labour of love for, from veteran British producer Woolley. As such the vibe is very much Performance meets Stardust, with a sprinkling of Velvet Goldmine and perhaps a touch of Boogie Nights – not as good as any of those forebears, of course, and much closer to Wonderland (2003), James Cox's 2003 biopic of John Holmes, starring Val Kilmer as the porn-movie legend.
   Because, like Wonderland, Stoned presents a possible solution to a long-running real-life murder mystery: the death by drowning of Jones in his own swimming pool, not long after he'd been effectively sacked from the Stones. Reportedly based on three separate books on the subject, Stoned points the finger squarely at one particular now-dead suspect – in reasonably convincing fashion, although there are certain questions left conspicuously unanswered by the time the credits roll.
   Gregory doesn't have anything like the energy that made his performance Green Street so achingly watchable – though he is a suitably fey, just-visiting-this-planet presence as the mercurial, utterly infuriating Jones. The guitarist isn't the most compelling figure in the film by a long way, though that isn't surprising when the supporting cast includes British cinema's two finest actors of their generation in Considine (as Jones's hapless, tormented builder-cum-handyman) and David Morrissey – the latter channelling Michael Caine to marvellously entertaining effect as the Stones' manager Mike Keylock. Whenever either is on screen you forget Woolley's cliche-happy direction and the messy script – and when they get to act together it's like Pacino and De Niro in Heat all over again…
   Attention to period detail is one of Stoned's strong suits – and also gives The Libertine much of its pungent flavour. Factotum, however, somewhat unwisely takes itself out of that race entirely, updating Charles Bukowski's terrific, heavily autobiographical 1975 novel to present day Los Angeles – presumably for budgetary reasons. On something of a roll after his Oscar-tipped turn in Crash, the long-underrated Dillon plays Bukowski's alter-ego Henry Chinaski in a largely plotless series of episodes. We see the aspiring writer struggle to hold down a series of dead-end jobs, perpetually distracted by women, the bottle, the racetrack, and his ever-nagging creative muse.  
Henry Chinaski was never exactly the same person as Charles Bukowski, of course, so it's perhaps churlish to complain that Dillon – still strikingly handsome at forty – isn't exactly a dead ringer for a man whose face was a grizzled mass of boil-scars (the late Neville Brand, craggy character-actor of Birdman of Alcatraz and Stalag 17 fame, would have been ideal). But part of the point of Bukowski was that he was, by his own admission, as ugly as sin – his life would probably have been entirely different if he'd sported the rugged good looks of a Hollywood star.  
   Dillon, meanwhile, seems content to channel Jack Nicholson's quieter side in his withdrawn performance: he traversed this dead-beat, skid-row territory with much more engaging results back in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989). His Chinaski isn't great company over the course of a feature-film, emerging as a self-centred, violent bozo with delusions of literary grandeur. We don't even know if he's any good as a writer – whereas while reading Bukowski's books we held the proof of his talent, and his success, in our very hands.
   After having seen Chinaski thump his girlfriend (Taylor) in a bar or throttle a racetrack snob, however, it's very hard to feel any sympathy for this dysfunctional lout, no matter how irritating his lickspittle bosses may be. Norwegian director Hamer, meanwhile, displays the same kind of low-key humour which made Kitchen Stories (2003) a deadpan delight – but Bukowski's books are often side-splittingly funny, despite their grindingly grim economic context. As it is Factotum is watchable enough on its own limited terms – but it's a frustratingly missed opportunity, and Bukowski really does deserve better.
Neil Young
7th November, 2005

original reviews : The Libertine    Stoned    Factotum