'He looks terrible,â?� muttered a man sitting behind me at a screening of Venus, during one of the film's more unflattering close-ups of Peter O'Toole. Indeed, the film's poster art is suggestive of the actor's ' and/or his character's ' physical deterioration: In a chillingly effective marketing gimmick, something is staring at you, but it resembles less a living, breathing Peter O'Toole than his cadaver.
Yes, O'Toole's severely wrinkled countenance has never looked worse ' credit both an expert makeup team and the unfortunate reality of aging. But it's a beautiful thing to see the legendary performer so unabashedly displaying his disintegration, warts and all, for the camera in a role that, were it not so warmly comic and genuinely poignant, would border on uncomfortable self-reflexivity.
O'Toole even looked old, you'll recall, in 1982's My Favorite Year, in which he played a boozing, womanizing Hollywood action hero whose star was dwindling along with his personal life. Twenty-four years later, we might be revisiting O'Toole's Alan Swann from that movie. His Maurice in Venus is a veteran actor reduced to playing dying patriarchs in stolid melodramas, hanging out with fellow grumpy old men in a diner and joking about the paltry number of column inches he'll get for his impending obituary (he may have prostate cancer).
We know O'Toole will get the full page (or more) Maurice dreams about, but whether he'll be relegated to roles that are beneath him remains to be seen. Venus proves, though, that O'Toole is still one of the best actors in the world. He acts more with his quivering mouth and probing gaze than most actors can reciting the most dramatic Shakespeare text.
Like many movies about the elderly, Venus is about recapturing youth and feeling alive, a necessity that arrives in the form of a spunky Everygirl, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the grandniece of his curmudgeonly buddy Ian (Leslie Phillips, disappointingly snubbed for Best Supporting Actor).
Ian is immediately repelled by Jessie, a wannabe model who's incapable of cooking her great-uncle's fish and who'd just as soon lounge on a couch and eat junk food, but Maurice becomes infatuated with her just as instantaneously. Out of curiosity, she accepts his offer to attend live theater and art galleries, and she reciprocates by dragging him to her cultural turf, a disco. They form an unusual and occasionally awkward friendship that, daringly, never glosses over the inherent perversity of the relationship.
Inasmuch as Maurice enlightens Jessie with the knowledge, wit and insight one accumulates over 70 years (he delivers one of 2006's most beautiful lines when telling her about a painting of the mythological goddess Venus), he also unabashedly wants to fornicate with her. He signs her up to be a nude model because he wants to see her naked, he admits to her he's been fantasizing about her body ('Your legs â?¦ your eyes â?¦ your cunt â?¦â?�) and he tries repeatedly and unsuccessfully to feel her up, settling for a whiff of her neck when she so permits.
On paper, this is reprehensible ' dirty-old-man behavior a step above pedophilia. The genius of writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Mitchell is that on-screen, Maurice's lusting for forbidden fruit is actually funny, which, in turns, makes it even bolder.
Venus is comic because it's so human, so natural ' there's not a sequence or line of dialogue that sounds contrived. Kureishi and Mitchell know what they're doing; they previously teamed up for the criminally underrated The Mother, another British import about a senior citizen finding sexual liberation in the form of a younger person. Maurice, stumbling over easels in an attempt to peek at Jessie in her first nude-modeling gig and humorously launching F-bombs at his friends over breakfast, is the comic flip side to the dark and primal drama caused by Anne Reid's sexual freedom in The Mother.
Venus isn't quite as good as its predecessor, which was imbued with the raw and untamed verisimilitude Kureishi honed in his early work writing for Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid). But it's certainly more buoyant, and it goes out with a grace and dignity befitting its star.