Movie review by Greg Carlson
In one of the most poignant scenes in “Venus,” aging thespians Maurice (Peter O’Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) pay a visit to St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, which is popularly known as the “Actor’s Church.” The two gaze at memorials for the likes of Laurence Harvey, Robert Shaw, and Boris Karloff while some chamber musicians practice behind them in the otherwise empty chapel. Just as it begins to dawn on the audience that O’Toole’s own name is as well known as any of his departed peers, and that his finest hour as a performer might be behind him, Maurice and Ian share a sweet little dance. Death might be around the corner, but these indomitable actors will dance until the doorbell rings.
Credit a moment like this as much to director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi as to the legendary O’Toole. Without the deft choices of the collaborators, a movie like “Venus” could easily curdle into mawkish melodrama or invite an overload of scenery chewing. Instead, the movie is a small gem. By description on paper, “Venus” sounds unlikely to avoid “dirty old man” status, as a geriatric Humbert Humbert pursues the grandniece of his best pal. Fortunately for all, the physically libidinous elements largely take a back seat to a variety of other concerns, particularly the indescribable élan and zest for life that can occur at any age.
When Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a nineteen year old with vague plans to pursue modeling, moves in with her granduncle Ian, the old grouch detests her laziness as much as her lack of culinary skill. Ian’s good friend Maurice, however, flatters her in the same way he has flattered countless women through the years, and Jessie initially doesn’t know what to do with his attention. Once the young woman realizes that she might be able to extract some kind of recompense from Maurice in exchange for small physical favors, they begin an odd courtship in which each person achieves both expected and unexpected satisfaction.
Occasionally, Maurice attempts to move beyond the allowable realm of innocent kisses on Jessie’s shoulders, and the consequence is typically a sharp jab in the ribs. One of the movie’s small joys is that it manages to effectively balance the sit-com-like humor of an old lothario with a measure of sympathy when one begins to realize that Maurice’s interest in Jessie has a genuine depth to it. Late in the movie, an excellent scene outlines pangs of ruefulness when Maurice feels betrayed by his youthful companion. It is a testament to O’Toole’s skill as a performer that scenes like this work at all. Even more impressive, he manages to do it entirely with his eyes rather than words.
“Venus” is not the sort of movie that will likely inspire impassioned philosophical discussion, but the film does raise enough questions to pique the interest of any viewer willing to invest in the experience. Is Maurice’s affection for Jessie some kind of apology for the way he ended things with his ex-wife (beautifully played by Vanessa Redgrave)? Redgrave and O’Toole are smashing in their moments together, and the movie surely would have benefited from another scene or two exploring Maurice’s wintry regret. “Venus” ultimately fails to measure up to O’Toole’s golden-era performances, but as a fond valentine to one of cinema’s beloved marvels, it is as pleasant as a summer day.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/19/07.