Appellate Judge Brendan Babish hopes his girlfriend is this good looking when he's 75.
Maurice: I'm impotent, of course, but I can still take theoretical interest.
Venus garnered most of its buzz for the performance of its septuagenarian star, Peter O'Toole, who earned his eighth Academy Award nomination for his work here. This leads to the two essential questions: the first, is this performance really one of O'Toole's best, or was it just a sympathy nomination, meant to serve as a coda to a fine career? The second, and more important, question: is the film any good, or is it just a final showcase for an elderly master thespian?
Facts of the Case
Maurice (Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia) and his friend Ian (Leslie Phillips, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) are two London pensioners, both crotchety and infirm, both consciously aware of their fragile mortality. When Ian's young niece Jessie (Jodie Whittacker) moves in with him, he is nearly driven mad by her insolence and slack-jawed disrespect. Maurice is also nearly driven mad, though his delirium is fueled by an all-consuming obsession with the young girl's pulchritude and nubile physique. Behind his friend's back, Maurice begins wooing the apathetic Jessie, buying her alcohol and jewelry in the hopes that she will allow an old man one last chance to indulge his still-throbbing libido.
I remember several years ago a small amount of buzz preceded the release of the Kirk Douglas movie Diamonds. The film was shot after Douglas had suffered a well-publicized stroke, so many early reports noted his inspiring performance—inspiring, that is, because he could still perform at all. Somehow this early, faint praise evolved into talk of an Oscar, an award that had eluded Douglas in his well-regarded career. This speculation made Diamonds all the more disappointing; the film is sophomoric and mawkish, and an appreciation of Douglas's performance is entirely dependent upon one's goodwill towards the elderly.
So I got nervous when I heard similar buzz surrounding Peter O'Toole's work in Venus. Here again was an aged actor, one who many thought was retired, delivering a lead performance that just might net him the Oscar that eluded him in his prime. However, unlike Douglas, O'Toole still shows a strong command of his faculties, most notably a striking ability for inspired lewdness. More importantly, Venus is an honest, vulgar, genuinely moving film that doesn't require sympathy or manufactured goodwill to be appreciated.
The problem with so many roles written for elderly actors in Hollywood is that the characters are so often defined by their age. Old people seem to exist in movies to either impart some bit of worldly wisdom or slowly die of a wasting disease; lately a third category, popularized by Grumpy Old Men, has emerged: the foul-mouthed old bastard, because isn't it so cute when old people swear? This makes Venus's brilliant, almost revelatory, portrayal of senior citizens all the more satisfying. The film doesn't ignore the realities of old age; health problems abound for Maurice and Ian; they have trouble finding work; and every morning it seems another old friend has died. But despite this, I never thought of Maurice as an old man; he is a funny, perverted, and eccentric man who just happens to be nearing the end of his life. Peter O'Toole may look disturbingly similar to a skeleton, but his eyes still sparkle, his libido still rages, and his barbs are achingly funny. It's a shame Forrest Whitaker chose 2006 to deliver his career-defining performance in The Last King of Scotland, because otherwise O'Toole very well might have deservedly won that elusive Academy Award.
Of course, there is something a little creepy about a man well into his 70s openly lusting after a young girl who is probably still a teenager. I'm sure several people will be strongly turned off by Morris's abnormal relationship with Jessie, and I can't really fault them. However, the creepiness is somewhat diffused by Maurice's frailty and impotence, as well Jesse's emotional and physical fortitude. Maurice's behavior might be predatory, but Jesse is no docile prey. And there is something touching about the relationship between a man, one well aware of his impending death, and the girl who allows him one last chance to admire the female form—a form that has clearly been the greatest source of happiness in Maurice's life. Also, Maurice is so sharp and funny one doesn't get the impression that Jesse is merely humoring an old man. In fact, were it not for the extraordinary age difference, Maurice and Jesse might have found themselves falling into a more conventional sort of love. But sadly, well over 50 years separates their years of birth, dooming any chance of a sustainable relationship. So what we are left with is a bittersweet romance, and one hell of a lovely movie.
The DVD has some fairly decent extras, but nothing to get too excited about. The commentary with the film's director and producer is very dry and British and rather boring, but still worthwhile for admirers of the film. There are also a handful of deleted scenes, but these are grainy and time-stamped and unmemorable. Lastly, there is the featurette "Venus: A Real Work of Art," which is worth watching if just to see the joy on the elderly actors' faces, who, as Leslie Philips admitted, weren't sure if they would ever get to play such substantial characters ever again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As previously mentioned, the creep-out potential of Venus runs rather high. If the idea of an elderly man lusting after a teenage girl elicits a shudder then you should probably just give this one a pass. Conversely, all fans of Harold and Maude should add this one to the top of the Netflix queue immediately.
The elderly characters in movies always seem so hard to relate to, largely because they're so—well, old. In Venus Peter O'Toole plays an elderly man who actually reminds me of several of my friends, and a little of myself. This is because Venus has taken some strands of the more base, though benign, human condition and threaded them into a film that's sad, sweet, and a joy from beginning to end.
Not guilty, though that decision is contingent upon whether Britain's age-of-consent laws are more lenient than our own.
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• Commentary with Director Roger Michell and Producer Kevin Loader
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