Director: Roger Michell
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Griffiths
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexual content and brief nudity)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 12/21/06 (limited); 1/19/07 (wide)
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Review by Mark Dujsik
There's aging with dignity, and then there's the Maurice Russell method. Peter O'Toole clearly has fun with the role of an elderly, veteran actor, but he might also be exorcising some personal demons. That is saying nothing against the man's character, of course, but Maurice is a thinly veiled persona of O'Toole. It's really a daring performance, this man at an end-life crisis. Now 74, O'Toole hasn't had a role to sink his teeth into in years. Given a role like this, he chomps away at it, and his performance in Venus partly serves as a painful reminder of what our great actors are reduced to in the waning years of their lives. That's part of the concept of the film, but it's also O'Toole's life. It's commonly a joke about actors doing roles for the paycheck, but reach a certain age, and an actor is lucky to have work at all. One need only look at O'Toole's recent filmography to see he's been wasted, and Venus serves for the most part as a reaffirmation of the man's talents. The film itself, though, is a bit shaky, particularly in focusing on a spring/winter relationship and relegating the more cathartic elements of living out one's final years to the background.
Maurice lives alone in a London apartment. He spends his days with his friend and fellow actor Ian (Leslie Phillips), recalling the glory days, exchanging pills at a local diner, and going to the theater. Ian is ecstatic at the prospect of his great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) moving in with him. She hasn't been able to find a job, so her mother sends her to her great-uncle's to be a caretaker. He even buys her pink towels, so there'll be no confusion in the bathroom. The thrill goes away fairly quickly when it becomes apparent Jessie has little interest in her great-uncle's care. Maurice visits one day, and Ian wants an out. Despite his horror stories, Maurice is instantly infatuated with the young girl. She wants to be a model, she tells her great-uncle's friend. He knows people, he tells her. Maurice recommends a trip to the theater to his friend, but Ian falls asleep before they leave. In Ian's stead, Jessie accompanies Maurice to the show, and at intermission, she suggests they hit a club. They do, but that is only the beginning of a relationship that hinges on Maurice's desire to give the girl what she wants and her desire to have things given to her.
The relationship is no romance by any stretch of the imagination, but it is sexual—never consummated, mind you, but sexual nonetheless. It's a game, really, and they both treat it as such. Their relationship is first treated for its comic potential. Maurice gets her a nude modeling job for an art class, and he tries to watch from outside but fails with a pratfall. It quickly grows dark and creepy, though. Jessie begins to tease Maurice with things he cannot have (a touch here, a kiss or two here, the smell of a finger), and Maurice—apparently left impotent after prostate surgery—gladly accepts whatever she gives and pushes for more. It's a testament to O'Toole's performance that he manages to play the creep and still remain utterly charming, and Jodie Whittaker accomplishes an enigmatic portrayal that manages to be sympathetic in spite of Jessie's manipulative ways. Their association is the primary thrust of events in the film, leading to some moments that ring false. Ian becomes more than suspicious of the two of them, putting a damper on his relationship with both of them, and a late development involving Jessie's new boyfriend uncomfortably forces the story where it needs to go.
While Maurice and Jessie's involvement seems weak, it's only in comparison to the film's quieter, more honest moments. The film manages a certain pathos in simply watching Maurice go about his life. The interaction between Maurice, Ian, and occasionally their friend Donald (Richard Griffiths) as they sit in the diner lovingly mocking each other is delightful, and when they spot an acquaintance's obituary, Maurice wonders how many lines of print he'll earn. He confides in Ian, "I am about to die, and I know nothing about myself." They kid each other about past roles, and in one haunting scene, Maurice stumbles over to a rundown amphitheater where a cacophony of the ghosts of his previous performances runs through his mind. Most affecting are the scenes between Maurice and his ex-wife Valerie, played by Vanessa Redgrave, whom he suddenly left for another actress in his younger days. He helps her out with money from the cash (he always asks for cash) from his menial television work, primarily playing corpses, he notices. There's an incredibly tender scene between the two as he bares his past feelings for her and, in the process, seems to regret what could have been.
Despite the more sensationalistic scenes between Maurice and Jessie, these are the scenes in Venus that stick, and it's where O'Toole's performance has the most personal resonance. "This is my good-bye to you," he tells his ex-wife, and if this is O'Toole's valediction to us—and let us hope it is not—it is a worthy one.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.