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.