Peter O'Toole is indisputably one of the greatest actors of our lifetime. Along with his Royal Academy of the Arts classmate Albert Finney, O'Toole holds the painful distinction of having been nominated for Oscars in four different decades without ever winning one. His current nomination for Venus is his eighth. He's had an absolutely magnificent career, from the dashing adventurer T.E. Lawrence in his youth to the aging thespian Maurice now at age 75. The key to his staying power is the ruthless way he approaches his characters, not a star who plays heroes, but an actor who portrays flawed, complicated men. His Maurice breaks your heart, not because he's old and frail but because he knows the unfixable wrongs he's done and knows, were he to live his life again, he'd make all the same selfish mistakes again.
Directed by Roger Michell and written by Hanif Kureishi, Venus is an April/December story that grows steadily darker and more unsettling. Like O'Toole himself, Maurice is a British actor of sustained accomplishment, a man who played the great Shakespearean roles on the West End stage and has worked steadily in cinema throughout his career. Maurice's acclaim has perhaps not risen to the heights of O'Toole's, but, as he says about himself, he's "a little bit famous," a man constantly recognized by fans and still sought after for supporting movie roles.
Maurice is a companionable person, a good bloke to have a drink with. He's got a host of buddies he hooks up with on a regular basis, especial Ian (Leslie Phillips), a fellow actor with whom he exchanges sly repartee about ancient performances. Maurice has also remained on pleasant terms with Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave), the wife whom he left years ago without ever divorcing. Valerie has had a stroke and has trouble moving about, so Maurice occasionally shows up with groceries, takes over the cooking chores and makes a meal for the two of them to share.
But Maurice just can't break any of his bad habits. He still drinks and smokes too much. When he sees the chance, he involves himself with a young woman in ways he shouldn't, although his baser motives are successfully treated first for laughs. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is a girl of perhaps 20. She is the daughter of Ian's niece, and comes to London from the country. Ostensibly she arrives to cook and clean for Ian in exchange for her room and board, but she quickly proves herself a pretty poor caretaker. Ian makes no secret of his dislike for Jessie. Maurice, on the other hand, spies her instantly as a potential conquest. He takes her to the theater and buys her presents, slowly angling for seduction, even though it's unclear whether his prostate cancer will allow him any longer to perform sexually.
Another script might render this situation sad, still another, like Bob Balaban's for The Last Good Time, might treat the material as a bracing, almost sweet, last breath of youth. But Michell, Kureishi and O'Toole take us some place disquieting. Jessie is as much the seductress as the seduced, tantalizing Maurice with a chance to smell her neck or kiss her three times on her bare shoulders. She isn't remotely interested in Maurice sexually, but she's ready to tease if she can get something for it. And if she can't she's willing to display her displeasure with physical abuse. When Maurice doesn't have enough money for a dress she wants, she pinches the skin of his chest with such force she almost brings him to his knees. When he tries a nuzzle for which she has not given permission, she strikes him with an elbow in the stomach with frightful force and subsequently puts him in the hospital when she knocks him down.
We start off Venus laughing with Maurice, enjoying his quick wit and his intelligently skewed view of the universe. In this way, we are charmed and thereby seduced by him the way others are. But gradually we discover that he's not really so nice a fellow. At first we think he wants to help and not just have Jessie. Then we learn the established pattern of his life, to take pleasure for himself where he can find it, with little regard for the cost of his pleasure on the lives of others. Ian, it develops, is little better, unwilling to assist his old friend when Maurice needs it desperately. And in Jessie, Maurice meets his match.
But, of course, in Maurice, Jessie meets her match too. And therein lies this picture's bleak message. Venus includes an apparent redemption, but it's a redemption that changes nothing, can change nothing, and one we are nudged to suspect will not endure. O'Toole is great here, honest and utterly brave as always, but I would rather remember him as Lawrence or Mr. Chips or the mysterious but ultimately benevolent film director in The Stunt Man.
- 2006 Miramax Films
- Maurice (Peter O'Toole) and Jessie (Jody Whittaker) are a deviously perfect match in Venus.