UTTERLY IN LOVE WITH VENUS
Directed By Roger Michell
Total Running Time: 95 Minutes
Cast: Peter O'Toole,
Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker,
Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Griffiths
Peter O’Toole is just amazing in Venus, a graceful and finely crafted little film that might net O’Toole a long-awaited Academy Award. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) re-teams here with writer Hanif Kureishi (My Son the Fanatic). The two made The Mother, which I will admit that I haven’t seen. That film, according to Kureishi, who spoke with me at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, involved a sexual relationship between a man (played by new Bond Daniel Craig) and a much older woman. Where The Mother was controversial, Venus should be received well by mainstream audiences.
In Venus, O’Toole plays Maurice, a British actor of some note now pretty much relegated in his old age to playing corpses on soap operas. His friends are actors, perhaps of lesser stardom, who now sit around in their old age drinking coffee and reading obituaries. When one of Maurice’s friends, Ian (Leslie Phillips), is visited by his young niece, Jessie (Jodi Whittaker), Maurice notices something within her that long since left his life. Ian complains bitterly about Jessie who has moved in to help him around his apartment. She skulks around the apartment when we first meet her eating something indescribably disgusting from a microwaved plastic cup. Maurice has come to Ian’s apartment to take him to the theater, and when Ian proves to not be down for the trip, Maurice takes Jessie along.
From here an odd mentorship begins—albeit begrudgingly, at first, for Jessie who one would think is far too hip to be seen out on the town with such an old man. But after the play, she takes Maurice to a club and drinks far more than she should. In the cab ride home, Maurice comforts the girl lovingly. A relationship of some sort has spawned.
Venus is incredibly well written, with writer Kureishi possessing a firm grasp on his characters both young and old, especially that of Maurice. The film would not have generated the kind of buzz it receives had it not been for the pitch-perfect performance by the 74-year-old O’Toole. Long one of my favorite actors, O’Toole, in a rare lead role at this point in his career, manages to occupy most every scene and is the film’s focus, even when the performances of those around him are equally wonderful.
O’Toole does something special with his eyes, as they relate to us that he’s a much younger man beneath the aged exterior. In one scene, his Maurice apologizes, I think, to his estranged wife (played with careful moppish understatement by Vanessa Redgrave). Sitting at a kitchen table, he leans in close to her placing his head on her shoulder lovingly and tragically conveying a lifetime of regret that he now wishes to admit. The regret is not necessarily negative. Maurice has lived a long enough life that the past indiscretions have lost their negative punch.
Venus is one of the best films of 2006 with newcomer Jodie Whittaker performing amazingly as Jessie. Her character must transform from a girl into a woman throughout the picture, and this loss of innocence is much more than sexual, it is an emotional and intellectual metamorphosis prompted by the life lessons of her elderly admirer.