Ageing thespian Maurice’s final weeks are illuminated by his pursuit of a friend’s great-niece, in this darkly comic and sharp yet touching study. The kind of film we British made so well in the 1980s, Venus repesents a new height in director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureshi’s collaborations, and features an amazing performance by Peter O’Toole.
When Ian (played by an alternatingly wittering and withering Leslie Phillips) learns his great niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is coming to London to look after him he conjurs up an image of a shy girl pleased to poach a nice piece of halibut for tea. But when his friend and felow actor Maurice (O’Toole) arrives to take him to the theatre he’s cowering in the presence of a Pot Noodle-slurping chav princess whose main interest is getting drunk.
Maurice, a practiced womaniser, is intrigued and slowly coaxes a conversation out of her. She is everything he no longer is – raw, vital, vigarous – and he craves that desperately. He takes her to the theatre and she – in the film’s only off moment I felt – takes him clubbing. As we watch Maurice’s skirmishes and sallies we also see the other side of his life, living in a flat rattled by a railway line in an area that’s degraded around him from which he escapes to visit his theatrical circle (including a magnificently ineffectual Richard Griffiths) and his crippled ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave), playing dying men on Casualty to earn money to help her out.
And so begins a classic love story. Despite or because of his impotence Maurice cannot resist the pursuit of his ‘Venus’, arranging for the girl to become a life model in the hope of seeing her naked, taking her clothes shopping knowing he has no money to purchase the chosen outfit just for the chance sight of a bare limb while she changes. O’Toole plays it both obsessive and creepy.
But she is just as much of a player, allowing him tiny favours, bathing at his house then leaving him to go partying, telling him he may kiss her neck three times, but no more. Do not imagine this is a charming May to December romantic scenario; it is all about exploring the shifts and balances of power as the two manipulate each other. She may like to think she is cynically exploiting him for gifts, but inevitably a bond between them forms. Barely able to articulate her feelings, at a key point in the movie she tries to cheer him up by offering him a sniff of her fingers after playing with herself, but pulls away when he tries to lick them. Maurice, strong despite his age, holds her firm, but does not press the advantage. From there the balance shifts and Venus is driven to increasingly unkind behaviour in order to convince herself that she doesn’t care.
It’s also a very funny film to the last, from the slapstick knockabout of O’Toole floundering round the art studio having falling through the door while trying to peek through the skylight, and his character’s rolled-up newspaper fight with Ian, to grim jokes about leaky cathetars and the surreal sight of the pair waltzing down the aisle of St Giles church, having made a drunken visit to view the memorial markers of actors who, poignantly, the two stars also knew in real life.
Visually the film does not flinch from the physical. Massive closeups expose the ageing stars’ sagging jawlines and yellowed teeth, and when people eat we always hear the sounds of mastication and gulping. We are in a world of physical decay and know from the start that this is a one-way journey, that we are watching an old, imperfect man address the prospect of death as best he can. Which is, largely, with great candour and a sparkle in the eye. Kureshi’s story is a neat circle, the script a magnificent gift to some of Britain’s finest actors but ultimately it is O’Toole’s film, both immensely touching and intensely powerful.