Venus gave Peter O’Toole another academy award nomination (though once again he didn’t win), divided critics and largely passed audiences by despite its quality cast. The reason for this I shall discuss shortly but the first thing to say is that this is a very funny and sometimes bittersweet film. Almost every line has a comic or ironic edge and from the opening scene with two ageing ‘thesps’ Maurice (Peter O’Toole – 79) and Ian (Leslie Phillips – 82) trading temazepam in a café, and discussing how to get the best ‘buzz’ from their medication, you know it will be fun.
The film has an important theme, but it is not a serious or a tragic one. Its writer, Hanif Kureishi and the director Roger Michell worked together on the BBC TV series ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ and ‘Mother’, a study of an old woman’s desire for a younger man. Kureishi is, perhaps, most famous for ‘My Beautiful Launderette’, which showed a homosexual relationship between a young white man and a young Asian man. Kureishi has clearly been interested for a long time in transgressive sexual relations. Much of the debate around ‘Venus’ has focused on the unsavoury or at least ambivalent nature of the elderly actor Maurice’s desire for a teenage girl, Jessie. This is the central relationship in the film.
As you will see, Maurice, the self-deluding roué, might readily admit that he would like to add Jessie to his list of conquests, but for me he behaves largely as an (admittedly lecherous) father-figure must. She wants to get drunk. He knows it is not good for her but better she does it where he can watch her than otherwise. The same applies when he gives over his flat to her and her lout of a boyfriend to have sex. It is undignified for him but at least she is spared an alley or a park at night. He may want her sexual favours but he also knows he is now impotent and can do her no harm.
When Ian accuses him of sexually molesting her, his response is to hit him on the head with a rolled up newspaper to try to bring him to his senses. Which seems about right to me for anyone who is wrong-headed enough to be appalled by the fact that old men still lust. All around us advertising and popular culture use titillation to try get a final rise out of our long-since exhausted collective libido. At least Maurice has the honesty to want to be near the real thing. His feelings might be inappropriate but at least they are real.
Maurice loves real, live, present women. One scene in particular, where Jessie allows Maurice to enjoy her ‘personal’ odour is gross, and Maurice, like Casanova (a character O’Toole has recently played on the BBC as an old man), would absolutely agree, suggesting that was the whole point! His wife, beautifully played by Vanessa Redgrave, understands this about him and she herself may say she wants to die but, in the meantime, she’s really enjoying that éclair. She has the same lust for life as Jessie downing her Bacardi breezers.
The difficulty for me with O’Toole’s character is rather that an established actor still working in film and TV today would be so poor. Actors at the top of their profession have been well rewarded for some years. His modest lodgings, quaking slightly as the train rolls over the nearby viaduct – a similar lodging is used for the elderly father of the main character in My Beautiful Launderette – seem rather like a throwback to an earlier era. Although if Maurice had been wealthy that would have created quite a different power relationship between himself and Jessie. It’s important that he can’t ‘buy’ her affection.
The key for the film for me isn’t O’Toole, who is both mesmerising and an old ham. It is the performance of Jodie Whittaker as Jessie. Kureishi has always had a great ironic eye for the detail of contemporary culture and Jessie’s love of Topshop, pot noodle and Hollyoaks is bang on. For me she is like modern working class girls sometimes can be: foul-mouthed, aggressive verbally and physically, empty-headed, sexually precocious, culturally deprived, emotionally bereft, and as Maurice would say ‘as beautiful as the day is long’.
Roger Michell | UK | 2006 | 95 minutes | 15