Cast: Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker, Richard Griffiths, Vanessa Redgrave
Direction: Roger Michell
Running Time: 95 minutes
by Martin Mitchell
Venus, as we all know, was supposed to be the movie for which its star, Peter O'Toole, would finally acquire the Oscar he's gone without through a long and distinguished career. (Of course, Forest Whittaker's victory as best actor for his performance in The Last King of Scotland suggests there may indeed be justice in the world.) Sadly, I guess (snide parenthetical phrase reflects my unwavering preference for the actor over the ham), that was not to be — perhaps, if we must look for reasons, because the role of Maurice in Venus, like that of Alan 25 years ago in My Favorite Year, was one O'Toole could have performed in his sleep: as an actor with a taste for drink, a performer who defines and shows off the role instead of immersing himself in it (over-the-top and over-the-hill, you might say).
Meanwhile, it was heartening to see Alan Arkin - another elderly actor but blessed with versatility and a genius for irony — get an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine, both for his outrageously funny performance and in acknowledgment of a modest but original movie; but I was sorry to see that in the British-equivalent (BAFTA) awards Arkin beat out Les-lie Phillips, who is unknown in the States but almost revered in Britain for his sixty-plus years onscreen, in everything from the Carry On and Doctor in series to the Harry Potter series and including many roles as the dashing sportsman or cad. For Phillips is a crucial supporting actor in Venus as Ian, the best friend of main character Maurice (their other friend — together they're something of an inseparable trio — is played by The History Boys' brilliant but alarmingly corpulent Richard Griffiths) and whose grandniece, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), arrives from up north to find fame or fortune in London and soon makes Maurice's visits to Ian's place more pleasant.
As a movie, Venus is simultaneously depressing and hilarious — as exemplified by early scenes in which these two old geezers, eyesight and manual dexterity failing, cut each other's toenails, which fly all over the place; one goes missing for days until Maurice reaches into a pocket for some money with which to pay (alas, the nail is all the pocket contains) for a dress he wants to buy Jessie. And if you are simultaneously amused and depressed (that is, if you are above a certain age), you may also, at first, find the character of Jessie truly annoying — as does Ian when she takes over his home and stretches out on the sofa (a scruffy version of the reclining figure Maurice will show her at the National Gallery) and stuffs herself all day with junk food. Ian is relieved when Maurice takes her off his hands, finds her a job as an artists' model, and takes her to the museum and, as the two stand before Velásquez's painting, gives the film its title.
Maurice and Ian are both actors. Ian seems to have retired, but Maurice keeps going, finding enough bit parts ("Usually as a corpse") to pay for his scotch and to impress Jessie with what's left of his fame. Maurice and Jessie become constant companions. To Maurice's chagrin, there's no sex (he admits impotence, for starters), just the occasional small touch she reluctantly comes to allow him as she realizes that his connections may help her. Maybe the film's strongest point, not without its sentimental implications, is in how their odd togetherness makes each of them bearable to any not—so-youthful and not-so-elderly people who might see the film. Aside from that, which grabs us and has us strongly rooting for them — culminating in a moving sequence near the end in which they tiptoe into the sea where Maurice played as a kid— and besides the fine work of Phillips and Griffiths (oh, yes, and young Whittaker, believable throughout), there is a scene between Maurice and the wife he long ago abandoned, whom he visits with charming regularity to chat with and to fix things around her musty, cluttered house - that is, between O'Toole and a dowdy yet luminescent Vanessa Redgrave — that will have you reaching for a big hanky.
Martin Mitchell, former editor of Rattapallax (2001-06) and of Pivot (1983-98), reviewed films for several publications, including After Dark for the length of its existence (1968-81). He is a contributing editor of the magazine.