Not since Harold and Maude has there been an intergenerational love connection as intense as this. In Venus, rapidly deteriorating 75-year-old Maurice (Peter O'Toole
) is infatuated by the tough-talking 19-year-old country girl Jessie (Jodie Whittaker
), the grand-niece of his best friend Ian (Leslie Phillips
). When she arrives in London from the sticks to act as a nurse/babysitter for her uncle, she disrupts both of their dusty lives with all sorts of fascinating unintended results.
Maurice and Ian are both actors of some renown, and Maurice still works, although he's been reduced mainly to playing dying men and corpses. A quick wit who enjoys a sip of whiskey as he amuses himself with the unpleasant details of his own decline, the sullen (and lovely) Jessie fascinates him. She, of course, is repulsed by both men and is mainly looking for free London lodging and a job "modelin'." She only takes interest in Maurice when he says he can get her a job. Article continues below
The job turns out to be modeling in the nude for an art class, but Jessie reluctantly goes along with it, convinced when Maurice takes her to the National Gallery to look at a particularly beautiful painting of a nude Venus.
Though the skittish Ian remains terrified of this new disruptive presence, Maurice, who has always been a ladies man and isn't about to change now, becomes increasingly enamored of her, and she grows fonder of him, although her motives are always in question. What, exactly, Jessie is up to, becomes an important question as she begins to let Maurice kiss her shoulders (only three times) or smell her neck. She also lets him buy her gifts, including a tattoo, and Maurice, for his part, sees himself playing a Henry Higgins sort of role. Can he turn this bumpkin into a lady? A lady who might actually love him?
Peter O'Toole takes this excellent opportunity to remind us what an incredible actor he is. It's been decades since he's been given a chance to shine like this, and he blows the doors off in a part that seems to have been custom-made for him. Stripped of all vanity (Maurice even submits to a prostate exam), O'Toole delivers a master class, submitting to lots of invasive close-ups that highlight those inextinguishable blue eyes. His brief scenes with his ex-wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave
, should be studied by acting students. They're two geniuses at work. Equally important is Whittaker, who shows no fear as she acts with these legends.Roger Michell
and Hanif Kureishi teamed up three years ago on The Mother, another interesting look at age gaps and attractions. Venus is lighter fare and rather more pleasant to watch, but most important, it gives Peter O'Toole an opportunity to do what he does best. One wonders if this may be his last truly grand performance.