I should confess from the outset that the film that I value above all others, my favorite film of all time, if you will, is David Lean’s masterful 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia. High among its breathtaking reasons for acclaim is Peter O’Toole’s luminous performance as an eccentric yet dashing British army officer. In the role, O’Toole is light and airy, all nimbleness and endowed with a palpable, primal incandescence.
And so it was that I was not prepared for how O’Toole’s performance in Venus would affect me. Now nearly 80, O’Toole appears gossamer and brittle. He shuffles instead of walks. His handsome face is now sunken, almost skeletal. I walked out of the film in a melancholy funk, musing on what was, for me, an all too apparent example of mortality. It is the exact sort of sentiment the characters in Venus know all too well.
While age may have devoured O’Toole’s youth, it has been utterly unable to touch his blistering talent, or his eyes which still sparkle with rakish light. He puts in a magnificent performance, at once a coiled, assured, muscular tour-de-force but also a fragile, tender, wisp of a thing. It is a sunset performance for the ages. O’Toole, who was given an honorary Academy Award a few years ago for his towering body of work may yet win it outright for his role as Maurice, an aged actor who was once quite famous, but now gets by with bit parts and the occasional kind recognition on the street. Maurice’s estranged wife (the equally delicious Vanessa Redgrave) asks him, at one point, what parts he’s lately been playing. “Corpse, more or less,” he replies, referring to a soap opera bit in which all he did was lay comatose in a hospital bed. “Typecast again?” Redgrave asks sarcastically, both of their faces rich in the shadows and lines of old age.
Maurice spends his days sorting pills and trading cheeky barbs with fellow codgers Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffiths). Ian can’t quite take care of himself anymore. He needs someone to look after his health, mind the flat, and cook his fish. Ecstatic at the arrival of his grandniece, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), Ian’s delight instantly turns to horror when the young girl turns out to be a boorish, uneducated, country tart who spends all her time eating junk food and drinking his best liquor. “It’s only been 24 hours and already I’m screaming for euthanasia!”
Maurice, on the other hand, is captivated by her. He sees her as a butterfly waiting to emerge—a rough, crude, at times even ugly shell that cannot fully hide the beautiful creature waiting within. He takes the young girl under his wing, introducing her to the theatre and art. She in turn introduces him to discotheques and Bacardi Breezers. When Ian asks Maurice why in the world Jesse even gives him the time of day, Maurice responds, “It is a very difficult thing. I am nice to her.”
Maurice may be old, but he is still a man whose mind and loins feel the warmth brought on by the presence of a beautiful woman. We are never quite sure whether Maurice would (or could) have sex with Jesse were she to ever give him the chance, or whether he is simply fidgeting with the feeble and flimsy boundaries of his impending transience in an attempt to see if he can still feel like the viral and potent man he once was. It is to O’Toole’s great credit that several scenes—which had the potential to devolve into a full-bodied ick fest—manage to stay tender, even innocent. What motivates Maurice is not some sort of revolting lechery, but the suffocating desire to spent time in the warmth and light of youth.
As Jessie reawakens Maurice’s zest for life, and he reveals to her a richer and softer world, he cannot help but be reminded of all that has passed and is now far outside his reach. In one powerful scene, he wanders, alone, onto the stage of an outdoor theater now abandoned for the winter cold. In his head, multiple voices—all his own—vie for clarity, a cacophony of Shakespeare, poetry and stagecraft. It is the chorus a life of promise and power not squandered or unfulfilled, but simply drawing to an inevitable and inescapable conclusion.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi have made a rare treat of a film that will make you laugh and break your heart in the same moment. Clever and poignant, Venus is a cinematic musing on those things which are fleeting and ephemeral, not the least of which is life itself, and the things we live for in the first place: the human imperative to connect.