Peter O’Toole is our finest living actor. I say that without qualifying it in any way. He simply is. It is not open to discussion. Since 1962 in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, he has been nominated for an Oscar eight times—and lost every single time, including at the last Academy Awards for this very film. During an Oscar radio show I was on the week before the Oscars, one of my fellow panelists suggested that O’Toole’s losses could perhaps be understood when placed in context of who he was up against those years. To this I say, with all due respect, bumblepuppy.
If nothing else, his 1972 loss for The Ruling Class to Marlon Brando for overrated mumbling in The Godfather offers witness to the fallacy of this rationalization. What about losing for Becket to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady in 1964? Or for Goodbye, Mr. Chips to John Wayne in True Grit in 1969? To put it mildly, I’m not finding the evidence very persuasive.
Oh well, O’Toole has a body of work that beats the pants off that of just about anybody else—and nowhere is this more apparent than in Roger Michell’s Venus. It’s a film that feels for all the world like a summing up of O’Toole’s career, almost a kind of irreverent requiem for a very much alive actor. And yet, this is—at least as originally conceived—one of those happy accidents of art. The terrific screenplay by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) wasn’t written with O’Toole specifically in mind, though somewhere along the way it became more O’Toole specific. Late in the film, there’s a scene where Maurice Russell (O’Toole) stands in an empty amphitheater to the echoing sounds of his past performances, and standing out in sharp relief over the jumbled bits of dialogue comes a bit of the soundtrack from The Ruling Class. Of course, one could also note that there are departures from O’Toole as well. (Unlike Maurice, O’Toole could hardly be described as having been “a little famous.”)
Comparisons to O’Toole aside, this is simply a terrific little film that examines several aspects of human interaction with the kind of sharp penetration and wit one would expect from a writer of Kureishi’s caliber. When the film opens, we find Maurice and his old friend—a lesser luminary of the acting world, Ian (popular Brit character actor Leslie Phillips)—passing their days counting pills, exchanging complaints about their failing health and bitching at each other like an old married couple. Ian is all a-dither over the impending arrival of his niece, whom he envisions as some kind of angel of mercy who will draw his bath, cook his meals and listen to Bach with him—all things he taunts Maurice with. The reality of niece Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker) is something else altogether; she’s a tough, sulky girl with several miles worth of pure attitude. Soon Ian is bemoaning her arrival (“It’s hardly been 24 hours, already I’m screaming for euthanasia”), while Maurice is enchanted, agreeing to deal with the girl as best he can (“You like women, Maurice”). The problem is that Maurice is quickly besotted with Jessie, who in turn views him as a dirty old man to be taken for a ride—only perhaps not. The more she deals with him, the more she likes him, even if she hates being touched by him and is quick to fend off his advances.
The film would be remarkable if it simply concentrated on this impossible relationship—if only because of O’Toole’s ability to capture Maurice’s knowledge of that impossibility, while simultaneously grasping any remote hint that he might be wrong about that. But it’s much more than that. Not only does it explore the aging actor’s mortality (it’s obvious early on that Maurice is dying of prostate cancer), but it touches on his relationships with all the people in his sphere and his view of himself at the end of his life (“I am about to die and I know nothing about myself”).
The scenes between Maurice and his not exactly ex-wife Valerie (the still magnificent Vanessa Redgrave) are beautifully realized—and like other aspects of the film, they touch on broader issues for those of us old enough to have watched O’Toole and Redgrave for 40 years of movies. But one of the most subtly developed points in the film is the relationship between Maurice and Ian. Though it’s never stated, it’s strongly implied that Ian is gay and in love with the presumably straight Maurice and always has been. Moreover, it hints that Maurice knows this and doles out a smattering of physical affection on him, as witness the charming scene where the two dance in the church, which climaxes with Ian kissing Maurice in gratitude. In essence, their relationship is a long-standing mirror image of the one between Maurice and Jessie—with the positions reversed. It is for things like this that Venus isn’t just a small-scale character study, but a thing of beauty to be treasured—just like its star. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke