Venus, 95 mins, rated [TBA], opening in cinemas on 22 February 2007.


(This review was  published in the February 2007 issue of the New South Wales Law Society Journal)

Old age is a subject not often covered in contemporary cinema. We are still more or less in the thrall of the cult of youth. But every so often a film comes along that takes more than a superficial look at what it might mean to grow old.

One such film is Venus, a funny, touching, challenging and sometimes vulgar look at growing old – in this case, somewhat disgracefully.

Peter O’Toole, who’s 74, is simply magnificent as Maurice, a veteran English actor reduced to playing dying – and even dead – men in TV dramas. In another superb performance Leslie Phillips, 82, best known for his roles in the classic Carry On and Doctor comedies from the 1950s and 60s, plays Maurice’s friend Ian, who is also a veteran actor of moderate reputation. They are joined by Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice’s ex-wife, and Richard Griffiths (from the forthcoming The History Boys, Hytner, 2006). It’s a top-quality ensemble.

Being at a loose end much of the time, Maurice and Ian meet regularly at a café to discuss the obituaries and to take and compare the various qualities and merits of the many pills they take. They bicker and squabble, but their relationship has clearly stood the test of time. Will it stand a new test, though? Ian’s grand-niece, Jessie is coming to stay, and she’s not exactly the Florence Nightingale he’s hoping for. It seems like a disaster to Ian, but for Maurice, Jessie is a revelation.

This film is part May/December romance and part Pygmalion story. While Ian tries to avoid Jessie: “She’s vile beyond belief!”, Maurice is completely smitten. He sees through Jessie’s vulgarity to her exquisite youth and beauty, and is drawn to her sexually. But he’s old and infirm and is about to have prostate surgery. How far can this relationship go? Jessie tolerates his advances on a limited basis, first because she’s lonely, then because she wants things from Maurice, and finally because she grows to care for him.

Playing Jessie is newcomer Jodie Whittaker, in her first feature film. She holds her own against the might of O’Toole (who’s in nearly every scene), and Phillips as well. She’s playing the sort of lower-class no-hoper character that could easily slide into cliché. But Whittaker keeps her real, and it is fascinating to watch her character develop throughout the film.

The idea of 74-year-old Peter O’Toole romancing a 19-year-old girl is a dicey one, but the director, Roger Michell (Persuasion, 1995 and Notting Hill, 1999) and writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985 and The Mother, 2003) manage to walk a fine line between prurience and sincere emotion. It is made clear, particularly in some really touching scenes with Vanessa Redgrave, that Maurice has always been a sexual being. When he was young, he was a god – just like O’Toole was. Now that he is old, his sexual yearning has not ceased.

The Venus of the title refers to Velazquez’s painting The Toilet of Venus, which Maurice shows to Jessie when he takes her to the National Gallery in London. Maurice gives Jessie this nickname, and the film ends with a delicious melding of images of the two Venuses. It’s a fitting end to a touching and thoughtful film. And my money’s on O’Toole for an Oscar.