Friday, September 4, 2015
"I hate sympathy."
"But you wouldn't have got any from me."
"I know. You're a true friend."
Venus is full of clever dialog like this ... and better.
Maurice (Peter O'Toole) is a once-popular actor, at the end of his years, squeezing a last few drops of joy out of life. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is the niece of one of his lifelong actor friends. Maurice is still sharp and sarcastic, debonair and wry. Jessie is ill-educated, crude and sullen. The title tells most of the story. She will, of course, become his Venus, inspiring him to love again before the final curtain. Despite its obviousness, Venus seduces you and makes you want to see what path this relationship takes towards its inevitable conclusion.
Despite its unavoidable sentimentality, Venus is full of honest storytelling. Maurice's banter with his friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) is full of witty insights into elder frailty. His visits with his estranged wife (Vanessa Redgrave) are heavy with regret and memories. The mood swings madly from mirthful to maudlin, and is frequently both at the same time. The dialog is crisp and observant right to the end. Another favorite line: "When you die, everyone wants to be your friend."
It is a joy to watch O'Toole's seamless performance. You cannot tell whether he is playing the crotchety actor Maurice, or himself, and it doesn't matter. His gait is frequently unsteady, his speech halting, but the twinkle in those famously seductive eyes is still bright and self-knowing. He is by turns everything you expect ... bombastic, disarming, sneering, crestfallen. And, eventually, helpless.
But O'Toole's performance wouldn't be half so impressive without a mirror to hold it up to, and Whittaker is equally remarkable as a young provincial girl who is at first derisive, then astonished, to be treated nicely. She brings him light and inspiration at the end of his life. He shoves her onto the path of a more self-confident future.
Venus is the type of small film that may well be relegated to a footnote in years to come, but it is worth your time. It drags momentarily at the end, but don't miss the perfect final frame.