Review: 'Venus'

DeathEntertainmentMoviesPeter O'TooleJane AustenVanessa Redgrave

Three years ago, Peter O'Toole expressed dismay atreceiving an honorary Oscar, saying he was "still in the game." Thetransporting performance he gives in "Venus" proves he was not kidding.

Told with wit, genuine poignancy and all kinds of humor, "Venus"charts the unlikely relationshipbetween a man in his 70s and a young woman more than half a century hisjunior. This is a relationship unlike any we've seen, and it's a measureof the film's subtle gifts that it is easier to watch it unfolding thanto precisely define what we're seeing.

For although 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, aboutthe getting and passing on of the wisdom of a lifetime. And it is donewith such surpassing skill on both sides of the camera that we can'thelp but marvel at it all.

It starts with the work of two of Britain's most adroit filmprofessionals, screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and collaborator-directorRoger Michell. Kureishi, whose credits include "My Beautiful Laundrette"and "My Son the Fanatic," has come up with a smart script that excels incharacter-based dialogue so tart it is as much fun to read on the pageas it is to see performed. And director Michell -- previouslyresponsible for "Notting Hill" as well as "Persuasion," the best of theJane Austen adaptations -- knows how to produce exactly calibrated linereadings that get all the juice out of deliciously offbeat lines like:"Oh, just kill them, kill the young, exterminate their disgustinghappiness and hope."

The main attraction on screen, obviously, is the seven-timeOscar-nominated O'Toole, who at 74 uses a lifetime of talent, craft andsimply living to turn the part of an aging actor who forms a connectionwith a young woman into a master class of lovely and seeminglyeffortless screen acting.

Equally impressive, although easier to overlook, is the work of JodieWhittaker, who graduated from London's Guildhall School of Music & Dramajust a year ago. She brings a deft ability to play all the at-timescontradictory aspects of a constantly changing character that the filmwould be lost without.

It's O'Toole's character, Maurice Russell, a London-based actor whoconsiders himself "a little" famous, we meet first, and it is somethingof a shock. Given our collective memory of the O'Toole of "Lawrence ofArabia," it is wrenching to see Maurice sitting on his bed, rumpled andfragile and without the will to get up until he slaps himself hard andsays, "Come on, old man."

But though Maurice is having trouble with his prostate and is reduced toplaying dead people on TV ("typecasting," jokes his ex-wife Valerie, anincandescent Vanessa Redgrave), he is still very much a charmer, someonewith 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 (LesliePhillips), comparing pills and trading sharp cracks. Then his friendannounces that his grandniece is coming to London from the north to helplook 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 prodigiousdrinker with a coarse tongue, she is the type that soon makes Ian"scream for euthanasia." However, Maurice, who considers himself "ascientist of the female heart," is intrigued.

It is a given that Maurice and Jessie, whom he soon dubs "Venus," aregoing to get along better than either one of them anticipates, butalmost nothing else about their relationship goes the way either they oraudiences can anticipate.

For one thing, Maurice is too old to have anything more than what hecalls "a theoretical interest" in the opposite sex, but that theoreticalinterest takes some potent turns. Also, neither one of this pair is anoticeably sweet person, and that shared prickliness and the bite of Kureishi's writing keep things from getting anywhere close to maudlin orsentimental.

Finally, it becomes evident that what motivates Maurice is not lecherybut 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 thehabit of putting their own pleasure first," and to see them first clashand then go beyond their difficulties is, frankly, a marvel.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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