Venus, 95 mins, rated [TBA], opening in cinemas on 22 February 2007.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
review was published
in the February 2007 issue of the New South Wales Law Society
Old age is a subject not often covered in contemporary cinema. We are
still more or less in the thrall of the cult of youth. But every so
often a film comes along that takes more than a superficial look at
what it might mean to grow old.
One such film is Venus, a funny, touching, challenging and sometimes
vulgar look at growing old – in this case, somewhat disgracefully.
Peter O’Toole, who’s 74, is simply magnificent as Maurice, a veteran
English actor reduced to playing dying – and even dead – men in TV
dramas. In another superb performance Leslie Phillips, 82, best known
for his roles in the classic Carry On
and Doctor comedies from the
1950s and 60s, plays Maurice’s friend Ian, who is also a veteran actor
of moderate reputation. They are joined by Vanessa Redgrave as
Maurice’s ex-wife, and Richard Griffiths (from the forthcoming The History Boys, Hytner, 2006).
It’s a top-quality ensemble.
Being at a loose end much of the time, Maurice and Ian meet regularly
at a café to discuss the obituaries and to take and compare the
various qualities and merits of the many pills they take. They bicker
and squabble, but their relationship has clearly stood the test of
time. Will it stand a new test, though? Ian’s grand-niece, Jessie is
coming to stay, and she’s not exactly the Florence Nightingale he’s
hoping for. It seems like a disaster to Ian, but for Maurice, Jessie is
This film is part May/December romance and part Pygmalion story. While
Ian tries to avoid Jessie: “She’s vile beyond belief!”, Maurice is
completely smitten. He sees through Jessie’s vulgarity to her exquisite
youth and beauty, and is drawn to her sexually. But he’s old and infirm
and is about to have prostate surgery. How far can this relationship
go? Jessie tolerates his advances on a limited basis, first because
she’s lonely, then because she wants things from Maurice, and finally
because she grows to care for him.
Playing Jessie is newcomer Jodie Whittaker, in her first feature film.
She holds her own against the might of O’Toole (who’s in nearly every
scene), and Phillips as well. She’s playing the sort of lower-class
no-hoper character that could easily slide into cliché. But
Whittaker keeps her real, and it is fascinating to watch her character
develop throughout the film.
The idea of 74-year-old Peter O’Toole romancing a 19-year-old girl is a
dicey one, but the director, Roger Michell (Persuasion, 1995 and Notting Hill, 1999) and writer
Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful
Laundrette, 1985 and The Mother,
2003) manage to walk a fine line between prurience and sincere emotion.
It is made clear, particularly in some really touching scenes with
Vanessa Redgrave, that Maurice has always been a sexual being. When he
was young, he was a god – just like O’Toole was. Now that he is old,
his sexual yearning has not ceased.
The Venus of the title refers to Velazquez’s painting The Toilet of Venus, which Maurice
shows to Jessie when he takes her to the National Gallery in London.
Maurice gives Jessie this nickname, and the film ends with a delicious
melding of images of the two Venuses. It’s a fitting end to a touching
and thoughtful film. And my money’s on O’Toole for an Oscar.