A cleverly written but somewhat muffled paean to sensual appetite, Venus functions largely as a custom-tailored vehicle for Peter O’Toole, playing a fairly well-known actor making a fast descent into decrepitude who is rejuvenated by his contact with a defensively harsh young girl (Jodie Whittaker). His sly courtship of this rough bit of crumpet never quite becomes the delight or the disturbing collision that the filmmakers intend, though both actors work hard at it, with Whittaker’s Mike Leigh-style reality grounding the star’s airy, distracted grandiloquence. The director, Roger Michell, dawdles when he needs to focus the material, and the choice of music (pop songs versus Erik Satie) seems too casual; a mood of uncertainty hovers over the whole project, as if it didn’t have the nerve to be completely realistic or all-out cute.
For many years now, O’Toole has only been castable as what he is: a drunk and an actor. He still gets a lot of play from the contrast of his “I’m not here” physical ethereality and the booming, diamond-cutting exactitude of his stage-trained voice (his hair-raising reading of a Shakespeare sonnet to the girl shows that he’s the real heir to John Gielgud, tragically wasted by booze and too many misbegotten projects). Though he does a humorous and heartfelt job with the central love affair, he only really comes alive with his peers. A romantic friendship with another elderly thesp (Leslie Philips) is sketched in with all kinds of fuzzy, tart detail, and his few scenes with his former wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, are filled with unspoken feelings, many of them unpleasant. Venus is notable mainly because no one has ever thought to cast O’Toole and Redgrave in a film together. They’re a perfect match-up: elongated, poetic, romantic, and sloppy-spirited, with identical haunted eyes, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Rosalind at the end of the line, making a meal of some tasty dialogue, connecting as actors and perhaps as people, while the good intentions of the rest of the project fade away.