Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 23 October 2006
Source Buena Vista International 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
For an elderly actor, recognising one’s own frailty and impending mortality is as good a way as any to snatch one last Oscar nomination. It worked for Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy and Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool, for both Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond: facing death in a sassy, irascible sort of way is, outside of disability, the closest thing to a guaranteed Academy pleaser the movies can conjure. Peter O’Toole seems to have hit the jackpot with Venus: not only is he old and suitably cantankerous, he’s also an actor, eking out a living on the fringes of the British film and television industry, playing mostly corpses. In this single role, the Academy is given the chance not only to honour one of the finest actors of his generation, but to give a shout out to all those little people slaving away on the margins, making their opulence possible.
Director Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi will be quick to deny any allegations of award chasing, and they have done their best to sharpen the edges of this potentially saccharine character study, throwing in a surprisingly high level of verbal filth and genuinely unsettling behaviour. But it’s impossible to imagine O’Toole reading the part of Maurice without the faintest golden gleam in his eye. And why not? He is indeed one of our very best, an eight-time nominee still unrewarded, and if he wants to make one last play for immortality who are we to protest, particularly when the performance in question is as sharp, nuanced and all-round entertaining as this one?
At heart the film is a Pygmalion story, as grimy teenage urchin Jessie moves down to London from the provinces to look after her ailing uncle Ian, and quickly draws the attention of his long-time best friend and fellow actor Maurice. Despite his age (and, following a prostate operation, his impotence), Maurice lusts after the girl, taking her to art galleries and the theatre, calling her his Venus, getting her a job as an artist’s model just so he can see her naked. And Jessie plays along, at first because she’s lonely, then because she’s manipulative, and finally because she cares.
As Maurice, Peter O’Toole is this film. He appears in almost every scene, and his presence dominates throughout. The part is lovingly created, evidently drawing from the actor’s own experience as much as from Kureishi’s excellent script. The bravest thing in the film is the unbridled lust in O’Toole’s eyes as he gazes on the luridly dressed, fairly unprepossessing Jessie, mentally (and verbally) undressing her in unnerving fashion. We’ve seen his catheter and his colostomy, seen him subjected to the humiliating probes and jabs of various medical professionals. So when he makes a grab for Jessie’s breast our sympathies are torn—he is the very embodiment of a dirty old man, lustfully drooling over a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. But he’s also the only one in the world who genuinely cares about her, dedicated to widening her perspective and improving her existence, whether she wants it or not. His love for her, however misplaced and inappropriate, is genuine.
Jessie’s responses complicate matter further. The character is rather clumsily constructed—the archetypal shell suit wearing, Hollyoaks watching, Pot Noodle eating council refugee. Newcomer Jodie Whittaker brings an awkward authenticity to the part, but working as she is in O’Toole’s long shadow she never gets the chance to prove herself. The later scenes, where Jessie begins to realise the power she has over Maurice and to exploit it, are enormously effective, her stumbling attempts at manipulation horrifying but understandable. A shame, then, that the filmmakers move on so swiftly—Jessie’s comeuppance comes all too soon, and the depths to which this (quite literal) tit-for-tat relationship could plumb are left unexplored.
Michell’s direction is, as ever, neat but unspectacular. A vivid and kaleidoscopic train journey late in the film threatens to bring some life to the visuals, but it’s too little, too late. Kureishi’s dialogue is superb, raw and chewy and uncompromising. His characters are expertly sketched and believable: despite a few plot bumps, this is perhaps his best work as a writer. The soundtrack is frustratingly awful, a parade of coffee table Richard Curtis chick—pop clichés, maudlin and intrusive.
But Venus is, at heart, an actor’s film, and the entire cast acquit themselves in exemplary fashion. Leslie Philips brings a subtle air of besieged dignity to the role of Ian, a man uncertain of his future but even more so of his past. Vanessa Redgrave is her usual luminous self, though there is a sense that both she and Richard Griffiths, as another old thespian, could do this sort of thing in their sleep. But all of them, characters and actors both, are in orbit around O’Toole’s towering performance.
Venus largely deserves the wide audience it will no doubt receive, in this country at least; it’s wise, heartfelt and very funny, if somewhat unambitious. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is its monotony of tone—the filmmakers construct an enchanting, very believable sense of wry pathos in the early scenes of the film, but fail to move very far beyond it. Even the tragic final scenes are played with a sense of dry, regretful humour: only rarely do we get a sense of genuine passion.