Three years ago, Peter O'Toole expressed dismay at receiving an honorary Oscar, saying he was "still in the game." The transporting performance he gives in "Venus" proves that he was not kidding.
Told with wit, genuine poignancy and all kinds of humor, "Venus" (opening Thursday) charts the unlikely relationship between a man in his 70s and a young woman more than half a century his junior. This is a relationship unlike any we've seen, and it's a measure of the film's subtle gifts that it is easier to watch it unfolding than to precisely define what we're seeing.
For though it looks to be about things fleeting and ephemeral, "Venus" touches, without forcing anything, on what matters most in life: love, friendship, connection. It's about aging and what keeps you alive, about the getting and passing on of the wisdom of a lifetime. And it is done with such surpassing skill on both sides of the camera that we can't help but marvel at it all.
It starts with the work of two of Britain's most adroit film professionals, screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and collaborator-director Roger Michell. Kureishi, whose credits include "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "My Son the Fanatic," has come up with a smartly written script that excels in character-based dialogue so tart it is as much fun to read on the page as it is to see performed. And director Michell — previously responsible for "Notting Hill" as well as "Persuasion," the best of the Jane Austen adaptations — knows how to produce exactly calibrated line readings that get all the juice out of deliciously offbeat lines like: "Oh, just kill them, kill the young, exterminate their disgusting happiness and hope."
The main attraction on screen, obviously, is the seven-time Oscar-nominated O'Toole, who at 74 uses a lifetime of talent, craft and simply living to turn the part of an aging actor who forms a connection with a young woman into a master class of lovely and seemingly effortless screen acting.
Equally impressive though easier to overlook is the work of Jodie Whittaker, who graduated from London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama just a year ago. She brings a deft ability to play all the at-times contradictory aspects of a constantly changing character that the film would be lost without.
It's O'Toole's character, Maurice Russell, a London-based actor who considers himself "a little" famous, we meet first, and it is something of a shock. Given our collective memory of the O'Toole of "Lawrence of Arabia," it is wrenching to see Maurice sitting on his bed, rumpled and fragile and without the will to get up until he slaps himself hard and says, "Come on, old man."
But though Maurice is having trouble with his prostate and is reduced to playing dead people on TV ("typecasting," jokes his ex-wife Valerie, an incandescent Vanessa Redgrave), he is still very much of a charmer, someone with a face that loves the limelight and eyes that retain a bright rakish light.
Maurice is in the habit of spending time with fellow codger Ian (Leslie Phillips), comparing pills and trading sharp cracks. Then his friend announces that his grandniece is coming to London from the north to help look after him. Or so he thinks.
For Jessie (Whittaker) turns out to be no one's idea of a caregiver, least of all her own. Surly, self-centered and willful, a prodigious drinker with a coarse tongue, she is the type that soon makes Ian "scream for euthanasia." However, Maurice, who considers himself "a scientist of the female heart," is intrigued.
It is a given that Maurice and Jessie, who he soon dubs "Venus," are going to get along better than either one of them anticipates, but almost nothing else about their relationship goes the way either they or audiences can anticipate.
For one thing, Maurice is too old to have anything more than what he calls "a theoretical interest" in the opposite sex, but that theoretical interest takes some potent turns. Also, neither one of this pair is a noticeably sweet person, and that shared prickliness and the bite of Kureishi's writing keep things from getting anywhere close to maudlin or sentimental.
Finally, it becomes evident that what motivates Maurice is not lechery but a kind of yearning envy of Jessie's youth and a longing for his own. Both Maurice and Jessie are, to borrow a phrase from the script, "in the habit of putting their own pleasure first," and to see them first clash and then go beyond their difficulties is, frankly, a marvel.
"Venus." MPAA rating: R, for language, some sexual content and brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 477-5581.