Peter O'Toole is a wonder, isn't he? He's been entertaining us with great movies (and, to be honest, his fair share of duds) for half a century, and still he goes on, with six new productions scheduled for 2007 and 2008. Just recently, in 2006 he gave us yet another delightful performance in "Venus," for which the Academy nominated him for yet another Oscar. Maybe some good things do just keep on getting better.
Of course, it's always hard, I'm sure, to surpass an amazing performance, and when you burst into the cinema spotlight so radiantly as O'Toole did in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) in only your eighth screen appearance, it must be hard to surpass. But then there were "Becket," "Lord Jim," "The Lion in Winter," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Ruling Class," "Man of La Mancha," "My Favorite Year," "The Last Emperor," "Troy," and probably a dozen more I've forgotten. "Venus" finds him in vintage form.
In "Venus" O'Toole plays Maurice Russell, an aging actor who has been, as he says, "a little famous," a womanizer, too, now tired and ailing, with a handful of old cronies like himself for company. Into his world comes a young woman, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a commoner arrived in London to care for Maurice's best friend, Ian (Leslie Phillips), another old-time actor like himself. Two people as different as Maurice and Jessie one could hardly find, the man in his seventies, sophisticated, erudite, cosmopolitan, and ailing; the woman in her early twenties, naive, awkward, and devoid of social grace. Yet they strike up a friendship based on mutual need that makes up a unique, bittersweet little romantic comedy. Or anti-romantic comedy.
Now, you might think at first blush that director Roger Michell ("Persuasion," "Notting Hill," "Enduring Love") and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi would do up "Venus" for broad laughs. They do not. Or that the story might merely be that of a dirty old man lusting after a younger woman. Maurice is, after all, older, much older, some fifty years older, than Jessie. But it is not. Not entirely. Instead, it is a story of mutual misunderstanding and, finally, understanding; about the need everyone has for finding someone else. Maurice becomes infatuated with the girl; she, in turn, comes to like his company. She cheers him up, something he badly needs. He is nice to her, something she badly needs.
He takes her to the theater. She takes him to nightclubs. Ian wants to send her back to her mother, but Maurice is fond of her. He takes her to museums. She awakens in him a new life. He calls her "Venus."
Although a recent prostrate operation has slowed Maurice down considerably, he still has a lecherous eye. Let's say he still has the will but not the way. Which is OK, because she wouldn't let him touch her, in any case, and they become friends. He makes her feel pretty. They please one another.
"Venus" is a small, touching film, hard to describe since not a lot really happens outwardly. But as a character piece, it is quite impressive. Naturally, for a character drama to work, you must have the best possible cast, and certainly "Venus" qualifies on that count. O'Toole puts in a delicate, nuanced performance, his character an old fellow who wonders where it all went and if there is any life left in him, any reason to continue with anything. Time has taken its toll on him, as life has flashed by. Young Jodie Whittaker is every bit his equal, her character hard on the outside but lost, lonely, and vulnerable on the inside. She is the symbol of Maurice's lost youth, while he is her indirect savior, the person who helps her to bloom as a human being.
As Maurice's friend, Ian, Leslie Phillips is a delight. His character is also an old-time actor, now sickly, only Ian's medical problems seem more imaginary than Maurice's. Ian's constant, grumpy, but droll complaining is amusing from beginning to end. Add to the mix a welcome, if all-too-brief, appearance by Vanessa Redgrave as Valerie, Maurice's estranged wife; and Richard Griffiths (think of Uncle Vernon in the "Potter" series) as Donald, another of Maurice and Ian's old chums, and you get a fine ensemble. But make no mistake: It really is O'Toole's picture.
If I had to compare "Venus" to any other films, they might be "Educating Rita" and "Pygmalion," although in "Venus" the age difference between the leads is even more prominent. Yet in each of these films we see very diverse people, people of different class and standing and education, finding value in one another. I suppose it's one of the mysteries of life how people make the connections they do. Maurice and Jessie connect in very special, if unusual, ways.
"Venus" never strains credulity, never lapses into sentimentality, and never loses its sense of restraint throughout its running time. It looks upon that most fragile of experiences, human relationships, with compassion and dignity and high good humor.
The video and audio are both fine, if rather average in appearance. The screen dimensions fill a 16x9 widescreen television, with a good, high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer. But there is not a lot about the picture that strikes one as usually good or bad. The colors are natural, the definition is ordinary, the detailing is generally soft.
As I say, the audio, too, is rather average. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction mainly conveys dialogue, which it does admirably well, and quiet background music, which spreads out nicely across the front channels and glows appropriately in the surrounds. The rear speakers also show their worth in a few, brief outdoor scenes with ambient crowd noises. A Mozart Clarinet Quintet sounds quite lovely, and I would liked to have heard more of that in the soundtrack.
The primary extra is an audio commentary with the film's director Roger Michell and its producer Kevin Loader. They respect the film enough to let us enjoy it while they chat, knowing when to keep silent and allow us to take in a scene or two. They do not joke and giggle and engage in the usual chatter that we sometimes find in these endeavors. Next is a thirteen-minute, making-of featurette, "Venus: A Real Work of Art," with comments and analysis from the cast and filmmakers. Then, there are four deleted scenes totaling about four minutes.
Things conclude with fifteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at four other Buena Vista titles; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Actually, "Venus" is neither a romance nor a comedy but an engaging slice of life, a charming treat that reminds us how fragile life is, how fast it goes by, and how much we need to fill it with ones we care about and ones who care for us. O'Toole is brilliant, as always, but his supporting cast are also up to the task. It is a welcome, if melancholy, picture.