Venus (United Kingdom, 2006)
The Oscar buzz surrounding Peter O'Toole is deafening. Despite having been nominated seven times, he has never won an Academy Award (unless you consider the honorary statue presented to him a few years ago). Roger Michell's Venus, which may be O'Toole's final major screen appearance, could provide him with one last shot. The film, which has generated some minor controversy, centers on the relationship between a 73-year old actor and a 20-year old would-be model. The 50 year gap makes this a March/December romance that would impress even Charlie Chaplin and Tony Randall. This is tricky territory for a film, but Michell navigates it with sensitivity and class. Venus is not crass or exploitative. It deals seriously with the possibility that an old man might fall in love with a young woman, and that (at least on some level) those emotions might be reciprocated. There's a lot more going on here than a dirty old man ogling an attractive young thing.
Maurice (O'Toole) is a respected but aging actor. He has prostate cancer and senses that the end is near. It doesn't worry him; in fact, he jokes about it with his good friend, Ian (Leslie Phillips), and his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave). Into his life comes Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), Ian's niece's daughter. She's a trash-talking, sulky young woman who has come to London to find work, preferably as a model. Intrigued by her, Maurice takes an interest. Initially, he is rebuffed, but the two eventually work through their differences to form a bond. He takes her shopping, to the theater, and to a museum. She takes him to a dance club. They fall in love, although not in the conventional way. Maurice is impotent; his sexual desire has dried up but he still appreciates the beauty of the female form. He wants to see Jessie naked and kiss her neck. She adores Maurice for his humor and intelligence, but isn't too keen about any skin-to-skin contact. Every once in a while, however, she allows him a liberty or two. She has limits, though: a hand on the breast gets him an elbow to the groin. Their relationship remains playful until Jessie's boyfriend enters the picture.
O'Toole deserves all the praise he has been getting for this part. Whether or not he will receive an Oscar nomination will likely depend on whether anyone sees the film. Maurice is a tough-talking, sharp witted old codger. He can recite Shakespeare one moment then launch into a profanity-laced tirade the next. When gazing at the Venus di Milo with Jessie, he remarks that the greatest expression of beauty for a man is the body of woman. She asks what the greatest beauty for woman is. He responds that it's her first child. This dumbfounds Jessie.
Jodie Whittaker, in her feature debut, falls into O'Toole shadow, but she has a strong enough presence not to get lost in it. She gives Jessie spunk and vigor, and helps us understand why Maurice falls in love. She's very good, but won't get the same accolades as her co-star, even though she takes her clothing off while O'Toole leaves his on. Supporting actors Leslie Phillips and Vanessa Redgrave are welcome additions. The verbal parrying between O'Toole and Phillips is one of Venus' undisputed highlights.
I was disappointed by the film's final 20 minutes - not so much by how Michell (Notting Hill) ultimately chooses to close the movie, but by the manner in which he goes about it. The climactic sequence feels forced; the emotions are real, but nothing else is. The boyfriend subplot is also contrived and unnecessary. Ultimately, it doesn't serve much purpose (at his age, Maurice is beyond jealousy) other than to add a few minutes to the running time.
In Hollywood, romance is almost always equated with sex, so it's often up to non-U.S. productions to remind us that there are other components to love. Like the platonic bond in Carrington, the interaction between the leads in Venus emphasizes that some of the deepest emotional relationships have limited (or non-existent) physical components. This is a brave movie because it addresses a subject Hollywood feels uncomfortable about, yet with O'Toole's authority informing his part, it's hard to believe that Venus won't find its audience.
Venus (United Kingdom, 2006)
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths, Vanessa Redgrave
Screenplay: Hanif Kureishi
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Music: David Arnold
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
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