Review by Jack Foley
PETER O’Toole delivers a masterful performance as a veteran actor given an unexpected new lease of life by an awkward teenage girl in Roger Michell’s biting, bittersweet comedy Venus.
The wily performer has already been tipped to land his eighth Oscar nomination for the part and it’s no more than he deserves.
He delivers a brave, warts-and-all type of performance that’s both tear-jerkingly poignant and a tour-de-force of comic timing.
But it’s made extra special given the volatile nature of the material, which constantly threatens to chart some very dubious terrain.
O’Toole plays Maurice, an acclaimed English actor whose career is in its twilight and who spends most of his time with fellow thesp Ian (Leslie Phillips) popping in between the local cafe and the theatre.
But his life is given new zest by the sudden arrival of Ian’s feisty grand-niece Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker), whose energy re-awakens passions (mental, physical and sexual) in Maurice that he’d almost forgotten had existed.
Befriending the tearaway teen, Maurice takes her to film sets and for nights on the town unconcerned about what people may think and even hoping for a little sexual gratification in the process – but all the while aware of his own impending death.
While certainly controversial in terms of its central relationship, Venus is a disarming film because of the sensitive way it handles such elements and the masterful delivery of Hanif Kureishi’s insightful screenplay.
What could have become tacky, even voyeuristic in the hands of some, is leant extra dramatic weight by the skills of all concerned.
O’Toole, for his part, expertly prevents Maurice from appearing like just another dirty old man, taking time to explore the inner turmoil of a man who may be past his prime physically – but in no way mentally.
It’s a passionate, heartfelt display that will have you laughing at his quick wit one moment and lamenting his stresses and strains the next.
His chemistry with Leslie Phillips is particularly charming and gives rise to many of the film’s best moments (such as the “cathatars at dawn” showdown in the cafe), while his interaction with Jodie Whittaker is both risque and insightful.
But the most touching moments are reserved for the handful of scenes he shares with Vanessa Redgrave, who plays his ex-wife, which are genuinely moving – the two clearly relished the opportunity of working together.
Sadly, the five star standards set by O’Toole and the first half of the film aren’t matched by the middle section, when Kureishi charts some altogether darker territory with a sub-plot involving Jessie’s new man.
It’s a relationship that never feels convincing and which feels like a cheap catalyst for the final act.
Fortunately, director Michell comes back strong to deliver the type of finale that provides O’Toole with the curtain call he deserves – and which ensures that the film remains with viewers long after it has finished.
Venus is therefore highly recommended viewing that provides one of Britain’s finest actors with another role of a lifetime. It’s worth seeing for O’Toole alone.
Running time: 94mins