Looking at the poster for Venus, one could be forgiven for thinking that the end was near. Here is nothing but a full-on shot of Peter O’Toole’s head, carefully doctored to make him seem frail and desiccated: not only is there a yellowish tinge to the skin that I’ve never seen on a human being, but O’Toole himself looks stunned, confused, and ready to pack it all in. This is strange not merely from a publicity standpoint (who attracts customers with something like this?), but because it doesn’t do the film (or O’Toole) justice. Venus and its star are as lively as they come, raging against the dying of the light even as they have to acknowledge its approach. The star does his best to fulfill his preordained role as randy raconteur, raising hell in theatre’s name and never betraying the idea, hanging at the margins of the movie, that we all have to ring down the curtain sometime.
You couldn’t call Venus a great film. It’s one of those movies about an older “life-force” bonding with a younger person and having all sorts of lively frolic (see Harold and Maude—or for that matter, 1982’s My Favorite Year, which starred O’Toole). This time, the life-force is Maurice (O’Toole), a once-prominent, now-aged actor who counts the days—loudly—with his ever-excitable theater buddies Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (a marginalized Richard Griffiths). His younger charge arrives with a big noise: she’s Ian’s grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a sullen, anti-intellectual teenager arrived in London to pursue a modeling career and who instead alarms the deeply genteel relation to whom she’s elected to bunk. Not so Maurice: partly attracted to a mind to mold, partly aroused by her unformed beauty, he gravitates to the graceless girl and forges a friendship that she, knowing no-one else in the city, guardedly reciprocates.
The set-up is obvious, but it’s handled well by the filmmakers. Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi could perhaps be chided for retreating from his more engaged work in the ’80s, but then, so could most of the British film industry; in any event, he’s crafted a script that doesn’t reach too high but doesn’t embarrass itself by pretending otherwise. Mostly, it’s a machine for providing O’Toole with grandiloquently clever lines, and perhaps trading on his reputation as a drunken hellraiser: not for nothing does it reference the wife he left behind (Vanessa Redgrave, killing with kindness in her single scene of indulgence) and frame the cost of living high and witty in terms of personal isolation. Wisely, Venus doesn’t do anything serious with the darkness at the edge of the frame: it just makes Maurice’s extroversion that much more piquant and noble, and lets O’Toole say “I ain’t dead yet,” to audience delight.
Of course, the wrong director could have thrown this out of balance, either pushing the gloom about the end of one’s life and career or blowing it off for bright, carefree, Sandy Dennis-worthy frivolity. But Roger Michell—who, with Notting Hill, gave the hated British rom-com one of its few credible entries—manages the various elements with, if not brilliance, then with a sense of proportion. He doesn’t inflate the proceedings to world-historical importance; nor does he trivialize the main characters’ emotions to get easy laughs. And while on that last score Kureshi almost obliges for him (the witticisms of Maurice and his colleagues get to be a bit much), the pair of them manage the two extremes into something light enough to enjoy but hefty enough to stick to your bones.
Take the character of Jessie. In one sense, she’s a caricature, a nightmare vision of shiftless commoner unresponsive to the calling of culture. Early scenes present her as a lump of sulking matter, a veritable immovable object open to a mockery that spills over on the aged relative who takes her in. But as the movie progresses, she becomes more of a person—or rather, the film sees her as more of a person. Without shifting Whittaker’s excellent, dagger-eyed performance in the slightest, it manages to reframe how we understand it: how her sloth and touchiness are endemic of a greater personal hurt, and how vulnerable she feels all alone in the big city. When Maurice tries to open her up (as when he gets her a modeling gig…with a life-study art class), her defenses are put in context, and made less ridiculous in the process.
Of course, that life-study class raises the hobgoblin of sexism that also lurks at the edges of the film. Venus is seen largely from Maurice’s point of view—and subsequently, from the objectifying gaze of a man with a serious hard-on. Much of his interest in his young charge could perhaps be described as condescending, if not leering; much of the film is based on Jessie fending off lecherous advances from the boy-can’t-help-it hands of her would-be mentor. And the film, through that art class, seems to be suggesting that for Jessie to be happy she has to make herself somewhat available—an idea as hackneyed as it is dubious. It’s here that the film stays in agreeable-time-killer territory: it’s happy to lurk in the subgenre’s clichés rather than define its own dramatic terra firma.
But while it stays within those familiar confines, it deepens them to the point that they aren’t perceived as such. Such sleight of hand is what makes Venus the lovely bit of fluff that it is—and in this traditionally slack movie month of January, likely your only new filmic option worth exercising. It knows that it isn’t aiming very high, but it senses why people aim at this level at all, and it tries to build a sensitive place where the constructs seem to add up to more than they normally would. O’Toole would be better served by a more attentive and joyful image than the strange, strange picture with which marketing has him saddled.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.