Film review by: Witney Seibold
Any television or theatrical previews you may have seen for “Venus,” would have you believe it’s another delightful droll British romantic comedy along the lines of, say, “Love, Actually.” See the octogenarian and the twentysomething fall in love! See how he teaches her small pieces of wisdom, and she brings him new life!
“Venus” is not cute. “Venus” is actually rather dark and desperate. It less resembles “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and more closely mirrors “Lolita” in its unfulfillable romantic longing and tragic scope.
Peter O’Toole more or less plays a bitter and frailer version of himself in the form of once-famed-yet-deteriorating actor Maurice. He spends his days drinking, gossiping with other bitter actors his age, and keeping very close track of how he and his peers’ bodies seems to be slowly shutting down. He occasionally acts, usually playing tired patriarchs and comatose grandfathers. His only real emotional consoprt is his ex-wife, Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave).
Maurice is approached one day by his friend Ian (Leslie Phillips), with horror stories of his twentysomething granddaughter, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). Jessie, sent to look after Ian, spends more time stealing booze and shouting at the old man. Maurice meets the firecracker, and finds her… well of course she’s pretty, but there’s no way he could… I mean… well, he can spend time with her, and appreciate her beauty. He begins to experience fresh intense lust and passion for the first time in years. The two of them begin going on excursions together, shopping and gallivanting about town.
What makes this situation so sad is that Jessie has Maurice pegged immediately; she sees his lust, and begins to manipulate him for money, favors, and booze. She continues to date men her age, and leads Maurice on in a very transparent effort to curry favors. Maurice sees that he’s being manipulated, and doesn’t seem to care about selling out; his days are numbered, so why not let a bratty young woman take complete advantage of him? There is a wonderful complexity to this dynamic, but it crushes the heart to witness it.
A final twist causes the dynamic to change, but I won’t tell you what happens.
“Venus” earned an Academy Award nomination for O’Toole, and rightfully so. Maurice gives us a man who is desperately trying to prove that, at his age, he can still be a slave to his passions. It’s hard to think that the film would have had anywhere near the same impact with any other aging British actor in the role. Whittaker is fine as the beautiful little bitch, and is a fine enough actress to convince us that her turn of heart is real.
The only real misstep is director Roger Mitchell’s choice to keep the photography and pacing so dreary. It is a sad story, all about ones proximity to death, and how that affects decisions, but the whole film feels like its taking place in a foggy funeral parlor. I’m not saying we needs bright Hollywood treacle to brighten things up (that would have been utterly fatal to the film), but we don’t need our faces pushed into the mud either.