From the opening scenes, it’s clear that Venus intends a bracing unsentimentality in its depiction of aging geezers on the London thespian scene. Peter O’Toole’s Maurice isn’t one of those stock characters, like the Lovable Codger or the Misanthropic Coot, that we know from sweet Britflicks about aging gracefully in a life begun at 70. He’s elegant and feeble and inappropriately randy. He speaks and smiles with a long-practiced elegance of performance. He navigates his surroundings with confidence, but also with the sense that the world has started to move a little out of focus. And he walks like it hurts. This film even smells like old people.
Shiftlessly succumbing to Maurice’s charms is Jodie Whittaker’s Jessie, the grand-niece of a friend. Jessie ignores the plain creepiness of his odd courtship, finds his quasi-celebrity a little intriguing and reckons he might have money to spend. Whittaker ably negotiates the vast difference between kept woman and bored teenager, never emoting too much and favoring the callous indifference of youth as she casually milks Maurice for what he can offer, teases that there may be some reciprocation, and then leaves him suffering on the sidelines. Roger Michell directs her in a low-key, naturalistic exercise in indifference that balances O’Toole’s well-practiced charisma.
Venus is clearly a Peter O’Toole vehicle — a screen presence still riveting after the ravages of all those years, his incisive performance is the film’s reason to exist. He’s unafraid to play abject desperation. But Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay is typically smart and sensitive. While the story needs Jessie’s sexually active muse to throw off some sparks, Kureishi contrasts Maurice’s latest infatuation with his more pragmatic relationship with Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave), the ex-wife he clearly loves dearly but wasn’t able to make a lifetime with. Watching him tinker with the young Jessie, his lascivious verbal attentions a figurative stand-in for the physical penetration he’s in no condition to pursue, it’s easy to understand why he was unable to live in one woman’s house for long. Kureishi has written Maurice with real sexual urges, and though some viewers may find it unseemly for a septuagenarian to be whispering in a young woman’s ear about the details of her nether regions, well, that’s where the film’s edge comes from. (Watching some scenes, you’ll be profoundly embarrassed for him; in others, you may be in awe of him.) About these matters, Venus is clearly self-conscious, but unapologetic.
When the time comes, as it clearly must, for Jessie to realize that she does actually care about Maurice, her reluctance and confusion are evident. (While her treatment of Maurice has been occasionally cruel, it’s fair turnabout for the old man’s craftsmanlike and prima facie exploitative efforts at seduction.) Her flustered give-and-take makes Venus emotionally involving, but the real center punch is saved for a coda that recalls half a century of screen history in a single image. I didn’t see it coming, and it left me thunderstruck — I could feel my chest collapsing. As a rumination on aging, and the lengths to which an old fart still full of erotic longing and tailed by the shadow of his extraordinary poise and beauty might go in the quest to keep the lights on inside his head and the fire burning in his loins, Venus packs a gentle wallop. B+