Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Venus'

Tribune movie critic

3½ stars (out of four)

Peter O'Toole, still a British cinematic lion at 74, performs another movie miracle in the Roger Michell-Hanif Kureishi film "Venus." O'Toole plays Maurice, a second-rate London film and stage actor in his twilight days. Maurice is an elegantly spoken, fragile-looking man who was once a matinee idol and a devil with the ladies and now is on his last legs, impotent, dying and lusting after a girl more than a half-century younger than he is. And O'Toole makes us empathize with, even love, this character, someone we might otherwise dismiss or deride as a dirty old man.

It's not an easy role. Maurice, an actor from O'Toole's generation--the Richard Harris-Michael Caine crew--is ill with prostate cancer, which gains our sympathy. But he's also a self-indulgent rake who's been a poor father and husband (to Vanessa Redgrave, no less) and who's making a fool of himself over an ill-taught, phlegmatic girl from the provinces--19-year-old Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the grandniece of one of his oldest friends, fellow actor Ian (Leslie Phillips of the "Carry On" series).

Jessie, who comes to London to stay with Ian, proves a surly lass and a bad cook; when whining Ian begs her to leave, sly old Maurice beckons her in. Spotting a resemblance between Jessie and the painter Diego Velazquez's subject in "The Toilet of Venus," he takes her to painting classes (as a nude model) and tries to woo her with poetry and celebrity, treating her, on a rare movie acting gig, to a ride in the studio's chauffeured limousine.

But Jessie bats away his groping hands, tricks and teases him, and brings home her thuggish boyfriend (Bronson Webb), breaking the heart of the West End Don Juan who broke so many others. Finally, they reach a truce, but a painful one--darker than all the "Educating Ritas" this script might recall.

Should we care about these people? Some won't. But writer Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette") and director Michell ("Notting Hill")--and most of all, O'Toole himself--know how to invest a film with enough humanity, humor and truth to overcome a nasty cliche.

Kureishi has spent his career writing about people who are flawed and not initially endearing: brash young Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Beautiful Laundrette," the feckless kids of "London Kills Me " and, more recently, the selfish May-October couple of Daniel Craig and Anne Reid in "The Mother." As a writer, Kureishi obviously doesn't care whether we like his characters, which is why the infinitely likable O'Toole is invaluable to this film.

It was in 1962 that this great actor first conquered the movie world in "Lawrence of Arabia" and the sight of Maurice is a far cry from the image that movie imprinted on our minds: the handsome, obsessed young T.E. Lawrence, with his shock of blond hair and his sky-blue eyes, the ultimate aesthete-adventurer.

Maurice, by contrast, is stooped and delicate, with a sneaky, crumbling little smile. He looks weak, weary. But this is a performance. We have only to recall last year's "Lassie," where O'Toole was the more robust and commanding Duke of Rudling, to realize he's playing fragility rather than succumbing to it on screen.

O'Toole achieves poignancy not by groping for our heartstrings but by honestly revealing Maurice's weakness and lost stature, by showing the raging charmer beneath the aging flesh.

When, in some of "Venus'." best scenes, Maurice trades crisp, acid-tongued cafe banter with his two long-time acting chums, Phillips' Ian and fey, rotund Donald (Richard Griffiths of "The History Boys"), it's highly amusing. But we're also aware that these tart old guys--"The Sunshine Boys" with Old Vic accents--are in their last acts. The film's one flaw is the performance of the youngest player, first-timer Whittaker, who can't make Jessie's initial callousness as interesting.

It's O'Toole's show though, and, to a much lesser extent, Phillips' and Griffiths'. One watches these actors, who give us so lovingly the essence of theater, old age and waggery, and treasures them. Honorary Oscar winner O'Toole has come up short seven times in the acting competition. But whether he wins an Oscar or not--and he's certainly one of the major contenders, along with Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland"--Maurice is one of the roles for which we'll long remember him. It's a ripping job by a beautiful actor.




Directed by Roger Michell; written by Hanif Kureishi; photographed by Haris Zambarloukos; edited by Nicolas Gaster; production designed by John-Paul Kelly; songs by Corinne Bailey Rae ; additional music by Rae, David Arnold; produced by Kevin Loader. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday at the AMC Theaters, 600 N. Michigan Ave. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: R (For language, some sexual content and brief nudity).

Maurice - Peter O'Toole

Ian - Leslie Phillips

Valerie - Vanessa Redgrave

Donald - Richard Griffiths

Jessie - Jodie Whittaker

Jillian - Cathryn Bradshaw

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