Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Maurice (Peter O’Toole) are a couple of geriatric thespians, friends for years, who share a taste for the refined. Ian has been having trouble coping in his old age and has his grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) come to stay, as an un-uniformed nurse. She isn't much use at this, swiftly driving him up the wall with her crass, drunken and wilful ways. Maurice, however, is fascinated and enthralled by this vulgar child. They strike up an abrasive friendship; she adores him for his intelligence and skill with people, and he gets her a job as an artist’s model. An unconventional - how on earth could it be conventional!? - romance develops.

Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) writes a tacit, elegant screenplay, which the stars lap up. When Maurice announces his interest in Jessie, he self-acclaims as "a scientist of the female heart", to which his friends quickly retort, "a professor of pussy." I admired the script's rough edges. The characters are all drawn as not to be thinly realised; no one is particularly sweet.

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Roger Michell (I place him entirely responsible for Julia Roberts' discovery that she can act in Notting Hill) directs sensitively, avoiding sensationalism. He does the only thing he should do, lets these theatrical masters loose on the screen. Although he is fond of visual gags, one quick line about mortality leads to an expertly timed joke, which leaves us believing that Maurice is on his death bed, surrounded by a grieving family.

O'Toole is simply remarkable. He reinvents himself once again, stealing the breath away with his learned quicksilver wit and charisma. He retains absolute command throughout to turn this sorry, lecherous and conniving old fool into an amazing foil for his fellow actors. It is a near flawless performance, invisibly crafted. Maurice is capable of cascading Shakespeare's sonnets at one moment and launching into a foul-mouthed tirade the next.

His co-stars deserve enormous praise, for not being blown back by this beanpole giant. Twenty-five-year-old Whittaker is luminous, loving and yet often cold. Jessie’s relationship with Maurice is a delicious exploration of eroticism and the human gaze and we share Maurice's fascination with his beautiful muse, if not necessarily his sexual desire. He may be a randy old coot, but ill health leaves him impotent and weak. Touch and sight are the currency they barter in. On her request, he buys her earrings and tattoos, appendages to the female figure, which he dubs his "Venus."

Phillips completes the cantankerous duo, a loyal, loving and dear friend, fond of spending mornings surfing the obituary columns and rummaging for toenail clippers. One scene finds the pair getting drunk at The Garrick and in another they waltz down the aisle of the actors’ chapel, walloping one another with rolled up newspapers. It feels like Grumpy Old Men, done right.

The final act trips up a little. Jessie's boyfriend (Bronson Webb) is a mistake, one that merely props up the run time. In events which I will not reveal, the characters and emotions ring true, but the actions do not.

I hope that good reviews and word of mouth will push this rough little gem to a great audience. Like the recent A Prairie Home Companion, Venus touches, but does not dwell upon, the things that matter most - living, loving and passing on the wisdom that age imbues.

Reviewed on: 25 Jan 2007
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Venus packshot
Love, with catheters, for an ageing act-or who is seduced by the beauty of passion’s young promise.
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Director: Roger Michell

Writer: Hanif Kureishi

Starring: Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Griffiths, Bronson Webb

Year: 2006

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


London 2006

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If you like this, try:

A Prairie Home Companion