Is it ever OK to be a dirty old man? What if you’re clever and British and formerly gorgeous? What if you’ve been Peter O’Toole your whole life? Venus dignifies the initial question by posing the others, which isn’t a cop out. Actually, it’s a sly reminder of the obvious yet overlooked point that many a distaste may be defeated with a helping of the highly tasteful.
O’Toole is Maurice, a veteran septuagenarian actor—rightly a star when in his prime, he plays mostly corpses now—who daily drinks and kvetches with his fussy old fellow thespian Ian (Leslie Phillips) about their inevitable degeneration. Together they sort through piles of prescription pills, quote Hamlet while clipping each other’s toenails, and size up freshly departed mates by the column inches in their obituaries.
Then arrives Ian’s teenaged grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), and Maurice is transfixed. It shows at once in his gaze—unabashedly a leer, but also a deep discovery, a restoration—and these are the right eyes for it; by now “O’Toole blue” should be a registered trademark. The character, like the actor portraying him, has long been adored, and now, with everything he’s got, he adores. And yes, under such circumstances, we’re meant to be uncomfortable. This couldn’t even be a May-December romance. It would be more like April Fool’s-New Year’s Eve.
An obvious provincial, Jessie’s as new to London as she is to being the object of an old man’s desire. But she’s alert enough to sense opportunity, so for starters, she lets Maurice get her drunk. Tensely, then, a halting game of mutual exploitation and cultivation develops. Having respectfully inquired about her ambitions and registered an interest in modeling, he sets her up to pose for a drawing class—in which, naturally, he wants to participate. Having heard what he can do with a few lines of Shakespeare and glimpsed how famous he once was, she warms to his interest, wondering what it might teach her about the pleasure-seeker’s life.
Finally he takes her to the National Gallery and shows her the Rokeby Venus—that mysterious Velázquez masterwork in which the nude goddess, with her back to the viewer, studies her own face in Cupid’s mirror. It’s an appropriate image for this film’s capstone: a complex and variously interpretable comment on erotic appraisal. Venus’ loveliest and most devastating moments come when Jessie actually does bloom under Maurice’s gaze. Whittaker’s receptivity and precision will not let you believe this is her first film; and O’Toole, whose command is total, will not let you believe it’s his last—even as that possibility lingers and in fact enriches the story.
Director Roger Michell also was responsible for the glossy Notting Hill, a better-than-expected romance between a Julia-Roberts-grade movie star (Julia Roberts) and the prim proprietor of a London bookshop (Hugh Grant). Venus, with its sharply proportional structure, its sparkles of neo-soul U.K. chart-topper Corinne Bailey Rae on the soundtrack, and so on, has some of that same sheen. It plays to a certain American appreciation for mannerly British charm—coming close to solicitous, with perhaps a slight surplus of O’Toole’s admittedly mellifluous recitations—but, ultimately, proves its mastery of unmannerly charm as well. This bitching, wanting old man is not just antiseptically grumpy, and the girl’s friendship, as full of turn-ons as of cruel and sudden reversals, is freshly, dangerously carnal.
Michell works in a few clever, comment-making cuts between life and performance, but the engine of the movie is that central human relationship. You’ll be hard pressed to find pity in this film, but there’s generosity everywhere: neatly thatched into Hanif Kureishi’s script, freely instigated by Michell’s sensitive direction and glinting in all the performances. (Vanessa Redgrave also appears, in a warm, wonderful and too brief turn as Maurice’s ex.) It’s even in cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ dusky view of a lived-in London, which makes such fond and purposeful use of twilight without ever overdoing the metaphor.
So many movies presume to instruct us on how to be young, and to insist we remain that way. Here’s a rare picture that with all due respect—and all due irreverence—would like to suggest one vital way of being old. It’s randy, all right, but not dirty.