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Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 08:18 am

Depp in the past

His best film likely is one you missed

How could a film starring one of the biggest box-office draws in the world slip by without a trace? In between his Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters, Johnny Depp starred in a true oddity titled The Libertine (2004), which received a negligible release in late 2005 and earlier this year.

The public would never embrace John Wilmot as they did Jack Sparrow. Depp declares at the beginning, directly to the camera, that you won’t like him, but you probably won’t like the movie, either. A libertine is defined as an immoral person who lives a life of pure debauchery, and Depp plays this loathsome character to the hilt. Doom and gloom are two of my favorite movie attributes, but the unrelentingly oppressive atmosphere contrives too hard to shock. The drab world of 17th-century England is presented in such a colorless palette, the film might as well have been shot in black-and-white. Some of the raunchy humor, particularly an obscene play featuring various phallic symbols and objects, does lighten the horrors on occasion, but it isn’t enough of a release from the generally grim tone.

Depp seemingly projects a modern persona, but his career has veered off to the past. Also in between the two Pirates movies, Depp starred in the infinitely more successful period piece Finding Neverland (2004), a whimsical account of playwright J.M. Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan. Barrie’s close friendship with a young widow (Kate Winslet) and her four sons, who ultimately inspired the children’s classic, forms the basis of the story. Barrie himself is somewhat childlike, preferring the company of the children to that of his own wife, and Depp is perfectly suited to bring this oddball to life. He even handles the Scottish accent with realistic subtlety.

There are so many theories and unanswered questions concerning the exploits of Jack the Ripper that any fictionalization that occurred in From Hell (2001) is perfectly acceptable. Depp is Inspector Frederick Abberline, an eccentric cop pursuing the legendary serial killer. Depp portrays Abberline as a disciple of Sherlock Holmes’, and From Hell plays out as a great murder mystery worthy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Directors Albert and Allen Hughes, better known for contemporary urban dramas, magnificently re-create Victorian London in a densely detailed and opulent thriller. Depp is definitely the film’s greatest asset, and the unjustly neglected From Hell is his best film of the decade so far.

New on DVD on Tuesday (Aug. 29): Akeelah and the Bee, Take the Lead, Sentinel, and Iron Island (Jazireh ahani).

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