Peter O’Toole is an icon of cinema prowess and at 75 years of age he remains dominant and compelling on screen. “Venus” is a film that is both poignant and utterly hilarious. Venus was a goddess born in the surf line, and this movie begins and ends in the same place- by the sea.
O’Toole plays an aged Maurice Russell, an actor who is living out his declining years in exhausted and frustrated decrepitude and loneliness. His companions are other old men who are also former actors and these men are all trapped by the predicament of age.
The movie opens with Maurice and his principle companion, Ian (played by Leslie Phillips), in a pub haggling and joking over their morning battery of pills. The banter of these ancient thespians is the comic engine for this caustically hilarious film; alongside O’Toole, stellar performances are delivered by Phillips, Richard Griffiths (who played Uncle Vernon in all the Harry Potter films) and Vanessa Redgrave.
There is sadness in the desperate way these men cling to the last vestiges of illustrious stage careers, despite the bleakness and neglect they find at their lives’ ends. Maurice and Ian are old men living on the fringe of society, playing dying men in films, as they wait for their own deaths and a solemn and respectful obituary.
In this way, “Venus” starts being risky right out of the gate. The part would seem to hit quite close to home for O’Toole, who is an extremely old actor.
There is daring also in the brash obscenity and honesty of the film, which portrays Maurice in all the indecorous glory of his rectal exams and ‘fu**’-ridden language.
The drama of the film arrives with Jessie, Ian’s grandniece, who is played by the young Jodie Whittaker. Her arrival is received with a wry and sarcastic, but immediately engaged interest, by Maurice. Jessie is meant to be a caretaker for her great-uncle, but it quickly becomes clear that she is not so inclined.
The relationship between Jessie and Maurice is the crux of this film, and it is its most risky aspect. Jessie’s arrival in Maurice’s life comes as a windfall of youthful vitality. He courts her attention by taking her to the theater and to the shops, despite his frailty and poverty.
An initial poignant moment between the two characters follows after a night out on the town. After seeing a play, Jessie leads him toward a nightclub. O’Toole delivers a loaded line, “Are you taking me somewhere? Wonderful!,” and she proceeds to drink herself into a stupor. Maurice then takes her to his apartment, takes off her shoes and puts her to bed on a couch. From then on, the odd pair begin a kind of courtship-bonding that is absolutely sexual from the start.
The rambling, character driven story allows O’Toole and Whittaker to vividly illustrate the contours of the relationship Ian and Jessie share and the result is captivating.
It is fascinating to watch Maurice be stirred, by the girl, from restive and enervating age to show himself yet capable of living. Directed by Roger Michell and written by Hanif Kureishi, the comedy and quality of “Venus” beg for it to be seen.
Kieburtz is a member of the class of 2009.