Good news about Venus, Roger Michell's new film about the curious relationship that develops between aging actor Maurice (Peter O'Toole) and young provincial woman Jessie (Jodie Whittaker): It is, thank God, not as prim or polite as it seems.
To its credit -- and the credit of Hanif Kureishi, its bold and skillful screenwriter -- Venus is more direct and provocative about elderly lechery and sexual brinkmanship than its estimable kissing cousins, 2003's Lost in Translation and the 2005 HBO film The Girl in the Café. Both of those films are tasteful, sensitive portrayals of lonely, fiftysomething men whose drab lives are brightened by serendipitous encounters with lonely, twentysomething women. Both films also go to great lengths to depict their leading men as jaded but discreet and even chivalrous; getting the girl was fine, but getting into the girl's pants was faintly indecent.
For Maurice, getting into the girl's pants is the prime objective, impotence and catheters be damned. His other retired actor friends know it, too: When he proclaims that he is "a scientist of the female heart," his friend Donald (Richard Griffiths) amends the statement by proclaiming Maurice "the professor of pussy." Maurice's dogged, cheerfully vulgar pursuit of Jessie -- and the way this pursuit affects his friendship with Ian (Leslie Phillips), who has taken Jessie in as a caretaker -- comprise the film's modest narrative.
As Maurice, O'Toole has found the perfect valedictory role. Even though his once-dashing face has slipped and sagged, he still commands the most insouciant voice of any living English actor. I always think of O'Toole caressing the sentence "I think it would be fun" in Lawrence of Arabia; four decades later, he is still a magnificent linguistic masseur who curls and purrs his words with feline intuition.
As Jessie, Whittaker's performance strengthens as her character parries Maurice's advances. Maurice strikes a chord with her, but she's never entirely softened by his charms or bedazzled by his recitations. Yet she continues to offer pieces of herself to him, first as an expression of affection but later as a way to take advantage of his age and infirmity.
The film is largely about this awkward dance between Jessie and Maurice, but it's also about being old. It is attentive to the everyday medical debasements that come with old age. Maurice and Ian are first shown in a shabby café, scrabbling over pills as though they were doubloons from El Dorado. Maurice's estranged wife (a sharp Vanessa Redgrave) limps around with a cane. And Maurice's attempts to seduce his feminine ideal often seem like disguised attempts to simply find some companionship. Venus becomes a film as much about solitude and community as it is about elderly male wish-fulfillment.
In his 2005 novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel García Márquez wrote, "It occurred to me that among the charms of old age are the provocations our young female friends permit themselves because they think we are out of commission." Venus is a deft, moving addendum to Márquez's statement.
Opening Friday, February 2nd