2006Director: Roger Mitchell
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker
few years from now, Venus will probably only be remembered as a minor moment in British cinema that served as a vehicle for Peter O’Toole’s eighth shot at an Oscar. Does the film deserve to be treasured beyond this? Undoubtedly Venus’ main audience is comprised of people hoping for the O’Toole show, and the man delivers, seeing as he is embarrassingly suited to the role of Maurice, a septuagenarian thesp nearing the end of his long career.
There is, however, a little more going on in Venus. The script is by Hanif Kureshi, who penned 2003’s The Mother (also directed by Roger Mitchell), a film that featured a romantic relationship with a large age gap. The meat of Venus’ plot concerns the similarly unusual friendship struck up between Maurice and Jessie (Jodie Whittaker, in her film debut), the sullen ward of his actor friend Ian (the cantankerous Leslie Phillips). Maurice, recently rendered impotent by cancer surgery, is drawn not only by Jessie’s rough beauty but her haughty self-possession. Jessie, who has come to London to flee her own personal traumas, basks in Maurice’s adoration as well as being repulsed by it.
Venus is happily willing to acknowledge the creepiness of Maurice’s adoration—Jessie slaps away Maurice’s roving hands, preferring him to admire her from afar and to dazzle her with the wealth of his experience (in some of the film’s cheesiest scenes, Jessie watches Maurice deliver Shakespeare monologues to the London air). Maurice thus insinuates himself into Jessie’s life as a surrogate educator, taking her to art galleries and plays, whereas she whisks him into clubs (where, in one of the film’s funnier sight gags, he merrily sips Bacardi Breezers). Still, there is somewhat of a romantic bond between the two, and I did feel a slight sense of unease at the intensity of Maurice’s mostly unreciprocated desire. “I’m impotent, of course, but I can still take theoretical interest,” he muses dreamily to Jessie early on.
Such awkwardness is mostly banished by O’Toole’s performance, which enriches what could be a rather slight tale with unvarnished charm and magnetism. O’Toole is given situations which on paper seem hackneyed (encouraging Jessie to pose as a nude model, his aforementioned monologues), but he underplays them perfectly, relying not on ridiculous “there’s life in this old dog yet!” grandstanding but quiet wistfulness, with more than a dash of wry humor. In matching such mastery, the inexperienced Whittaker has a daunting task, and she deserves praise for not making Jessie a gutter-mouthed stereotype but instead a believably wounded young woman—the role doesn’t raise as many laughs, but it makes her connection with Maurice seem real.
Stronger still is O’Toole’s work with the film’s veteran actors. Particularly funny (and undoubtedly more crowd-pleasing) are the scenes between Maurice and Ian. Sometimes paired with the underused Richard Griffiths (as fellow actor Donald), the bickering artistes peruse the obituaries in dingy greasy spoons, looking for news of fallen comrades and meditating on their own dimming careers—Maurice himself mostly plays “corpses,” he unhappily admits. Better still are Maurice’s unfortunately brief meetings with his ex-wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who matches O’Toole’s sardonic melancholia wonderfully. Their scenes serve to underline Maurice’s confrontation with mortality, the more immediately compelling and moving theme of the film.
Not to be flippant, but in the end, all of Venus’ plotting and character does seems rather unimportant. This film really is a paean to the titanic figure of O’Toole, a quiet swansong that reflects on both his hell-raising heyday and his enduring humor and spirit. No doubt, there’s diverting fun to be had in Maurice’s tumultuous relationship with Jessie and his good-natured squabbling with Ian. The film’s most lasting image, though, is a striking picture of a young O’Toole we’re shown, one that emphasizes all of his darkly powerful appeal. Venus is not the stuff of legend, but its star certainly is.
Venus is currently playing in limited release.
By: David Sims
Published on: 2007-02-20