Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Cathryn Bradshaw, Richard Griffiths, Bronson Webb
Written by: Hanif Kureishi
Directed by: Roger Michell
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity
Running Time: 95
Date: 09/02/2006
IMDB

Venus (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Acting Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The new movie Venus tells the story of an odd and tender friendship between an older man and a younger woman; the catch here is that the age difference is a staggering fifty years, between19 year-old Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) and 70-something Maurice (Peter O'Toole). Even though the overall conceit reeks of sitcom trappings, the film is carefully balanced, keeping a solid emotional center.

A working London actor busy with plays and television, the "little bit famous" Maurice loves to spend time with his old colleague Ian (Leslie Phillips). Their dryly hilarious bickering sets the tone for the entire film. Ian anticipates a visit from his grand-niece, and expects that she will begin caring for his worldly needs, such as cooking and cleaning. Of course, the girl that actually arrives is more of a modern teenager, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), with modern teenage ennui, cynicism and selfishness.

While these qualities drive Ian into a fit of pique, they actually intrigue the more playful Maurice. He slowly engages her in conversation, and his way of bluntly telling the truth (there's no point in lying at his age) does not repulse her. Their friendship/relationship grows in an organic way based on this truth-telling and on the fact that sex isn't necessarily the goal. Part of the film's success is based on Maurice's interaction with other people, notably Ian, but also his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave), whom he visits for an occasional home-cooked meal. He showers her with compliments and gives her money, and we wonder where their marriage might have gone wrong. It's likely that Maurice has not always been comfortable with the truth, even if he has always been comfortable with women.

Director Michell has a touch for slow-building relationships, as proven by Notting Hill (1999), still Julia Roberts' best romantic comedy and possibly her best performance, and also Persuasion (1995), arguably the strongest and most straightforward of the many Jane Austen adaptations of the 1990s. His previous film, The Mother (2004), also dealt with a May-December romance, but twisted the other way around. It followed a widowed grandmother (Anne Rapp) who attracts the attention of a much younger man (Daniel Craig), a married carpenter working on her son's house.

The talented Hanif Kureishi wrote both The Mother and Venus (as well as My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic); he's an intelligent writer with a taste for love affairs across huge cultural, social and generational divides. Kureishi keeps small doses of all three elements going throughout Venus, a sense of a life bordering on poverty, and a glimpse of a London populated by more than just rich white people. By doing this, he avoids that homogenized romantic comedy feel of Nancy Myers' The Holiday and so many other recent films.

Regardless of everything else, however, the movie belongs to O'Toole, and it's worth celebrating his return. For years, this dazzling, energetic actor has been stuck in small roles or in unreleasable junk (Supergirl, Club Paradise, King Ralph and The Seventh Coin, to name just a few). This is his best performance since My Favorite Year (1982), and he's unquestionably in top form. Michell and Kureishi show him with all his Lawrence of Arabia bravado intact, especially in a few delightful scenes while watching him work, but also with a new vulnerability, and an impressive bravery in showing this new side.

In other words, he has the power to take this lecherous, sorry old fool and make us feel his weight, but also make him the most charming, most exciting fellow in town. Very few movie actors have ever wielded such magnetism and talent, and yet, O'Toole has never won a competitive acting Oscar. If he wins for Venus, it shouldn't be for sentimental reasons; it should be because he's the best.

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