Movie Review by Neil Sadler
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker, Richard Griffiths
Director: Roger Michell
Maurice (Peter O’Toole) is an aging actor who spends his days playing corpses, swapping stories and pills with fellow actor Ian (Leslie Philips) and visiting his invalided ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave.) On meeting, Ian’s grand-niece, Jessie, who is supposedly meant to be caring for her great-uncle, Maurice develops an attachment to the girl and tries to give her the benefit of his experience. He soon realises however that he has as much to learn from her, as she does from him.
From the marketing, VENUS appears to be another story of growing old disgracefully – crossed with a Lolita-type tale of an older man’s lust for a young girl. Don’t be fooled. Thanks to a strong cast, and more importantly a solid and original script by Hanif Kureshi and subtle, almost muted direction from Roger Michell, VENUS manages to usurp your expectations at almost every turn.
Just as in Michell and Kureshi’s previous collaboration, THE MOTHER, the story defies simple description. In one respect it is the story of Maurice’s (Peter O’Toole) lust for Jessie (Jodie Whitaker), the niece of his best friend. More importantly it is a story of decline and regret – of a life of passion that still, as it draws to a close, feels unlived.
The way the film is shot, almost drained of colour, mimics the story. Here, for the most part, are characters for whom life is a long grey line, occasionally brought to life by spots of colour and excitement.
Peter O’Toole wears every wrinkle with sad pride. There is a dignity in his performance as he battles his decline – more Don Quixote than Don Juan. His attempts at wooing his Venus could be seen as sordid and pitiful. That it is neither of those things is a testament to the great acting and script.
This is also Jessie’s story – and it is a story that lifts this far above its Lolita-like premise. The understated and truthful performance of newcomer, Jodie Whitaker gives balance and flesh to the story. In turns, she is crude, manipulative and vulnerable, but thanks to her performance and Kureshi’s fine characterisation, she is always real – not some “Vickie Pollard” type teenage caricature.
That said – every character shines. Peter O’Toole is the fragile lynchpin of the piece but whether it is Leslie Philips’ wan best friend or Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice’s broken but never bitter ex-wife – there is a touching humanity to all the main characters.
Venus is a thoughtful film, with great humour and warmth.