When you get right down to it, there are only two ways of dying: prepared and unprepared. In Venus, the new film written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, My Son the Fanatic, The Mother) and directed by Roger Michell (who helmed The Mother, as well as Persuasion and Notting Hill), Peter O’Toole plays Maurice Russell, an elderly man who knows his days are numbered. Maurice has plenty of unfinished business in his life: he’s never properly apologized to his wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave) or their children for deserting them for another woman, and he laments that in all his years he hasn’t really learned anything about himself, but those are merely side issues. What he really cares about is getting some enjoyment out of his last days, however compromised it may be by his physical condition.
His closest friend, Ian (Leslie Phillips), is a far less adventurous sort, content merely to live out the remainder of his life in comfortable monotony. The two men — both actors, though Maurice continues working while Ian is mostly retired — regularly attend the theater together and have lunch each day at the same little café, where they scan the obituaries and measure out the import of friends’ lives by the number of column-inches they’ve been given. Their life is as Ian likes it, steady, regimented, and utterly lacking in excitement, but he worries about living alone and looking after himself as his body continues its decline. Seeking a live-in nurse who’ll work for nothing, he accepts his niece’s offer to have her daughter come live with him. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is twentyish; pretty in a low-class, too-much-makeup way; and has absolutely boorish manners — rather than helping Ian out around the house, she merely terrifies him and eats all his food.
As an actor, and thus, naturally, an egotist, the ravages of age are particularly cruel for Maurice. Fans still occasionally recognize him in public, but the nurses and doctors he must regularly see barely acknowledge him as a person, let alone a personage, carrying on their inconsequential chit-chat with one another while drawing his blood and discussing his impending death with him as if it were a matter of no consequence, equivalent to a case of the sniffles. But Maurice takes it all in stride, both his body’s betrayals and the attendant loss of dignity; he seems merely bemused to have somehow wound up so old (O’Toole is 74, though the character seems older) and to feel that perhaps it’s only a temporary condition, a minor obstacle to fulfilling his desires. Always a ladies’ man — another aged friend describes him as “a professor of pussy” — Maurice will let neither infirmity nor even impotence prevent him from having a final fling. And the pretty, malleable Jessie seems at first an ideal candidate.
Almost immediately upon meeting her, Maurice sets about charming Jessie, taking her to the theater and for a shopping trip — though he has no money to buy her anything — and she responds as you might expect a woman to respond to attentions from a man old enough to be her grandfather: She’s flattered by his interest, charmed by his manners, and utterly repulsed by his touch. She encourages him just enough to get what she wants, then she cuts him off firmly, sometimes with a sharp reprimand, sometimes with a slap, sometimes, believe it or not, with a titty-twister. Maurice, though, is hardly the sad old skirt-chaser of so many other films; he didn’t spend half a century charming women without learning a few things. He’s cagey as hell with Jessie, willing to work on her ego, her greed, or her sympathy as necessary.
O’Toole is as saddening as he is exciting to watch, his leading-man looks deteriorated into flesh the color and consistency of oatmeal, his great 6’3” frame stooped and gaunt, but his spirit and charm fully intact. He has attained, though, one of the great benefits of age (and one that seems completely unattainable to aging American actors): He just doesn’t give a shit. He has earned the right to be completely unself-conscious, and it’s this that he uses to make Maurice such a fascinating character. The issue of maintaining dignity, of keeping up appearances, is beside the point for both the character and the actor, yet there’s no sense that we should pity either. They are both enjoying themselves, hedonistically squeezing out the last few drops of pleasure that life can offer and greedily lapping them up.
Venus is a movie about dying and about losing people you love, but it isn’t a sad movie. O’Toole’s performance is full of wit and vigor and, even at Maurice’s weakest, there is a sense of a man who lived life fully and partook of every pleasure available. Kureishi is among the most clear-eyed and unsentimental of screenwriters, and he’s written Maurice as someone we can choose to admire or dislike as we will, with no pandering to our emotions, and Michell’s direction, as usual, is crisply unobtrusive, creating a world that we can believe in all its details. In most ways, it is simply the world we already know, seen from a perspective that each of us, God willing, will eventually attain. We should all hope to enjoy it as much as Maurice does.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Venus / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | January 19, 2007 | Comments ()