FOR THE LUST OF VENUS
Theres temptation to spend this reviews entire budget of words defending Venus from viewers who, filtering their vision of this fine film through their own prejudices and intolerance, will see it as a dirty-old-man-groping-a-young-girl exploitation story thats scantily clad in whatever respectability Peter OToole and a supporting cast of classically qualified actors can bring to it.
That view is small minded and pitiful, and whoever sticks with it will miss the profoundly moving experience of watching the great OToole now 74 and still remarkably handsome playing Maurice, an elderly, almost-has-been actor whos finds himself desperately trying to recapture the sense of vitality, the essence of the life force that he felt during his youth by looking for love.
Maurices spirits rise when he becomes intrigued by and falls in lust with the young and naively cunning Jessie (Jodie Whitaker) a troubled teen whos a cross between a Lolita and a Miss Hoyden, and has a street smart toughness about her whos moved to London from the burbs to become a model, and to take care of or mooch off ofher great uncle, Ian (Leslie Phillips), another aging actor in Maurices circle of friends.
In this exaggerated December-April (the girls too young to be thought of as May) love story, Maurice befriends Jessie, finds her a modeling gig sitting in the nude for an art class and then tries to steal a glimpse of her nakedness through the studios transom. He nicknames her Venus, after the famous painting. And, yes, although hes sexually impotent, he does cop a feel of her now and again but in such a tentative, adolescent way thats so imbued with hope and longing, its heartbreaking.
Is their December-April mutually exploitive but really unrequited sexuality discomforting to watch? Yes, sometimes. But, its entirely true to and appropriate for the story, and if you allow yourself to follow OTooles magnificent performance to that place of truth about aging, that place where fears about being alone, forgotten, ineffectual, unable to care for yourself abound and where you can still feel the spirit of your youth, but lack energy to access it, Venus can change the way you think about the elderly, their needs and outlook. OTooles performance is absolutely heartbreaking.
Jessie teases Maurice, and she plays him, trading little touches and nuzzles for pretty trinkets and good times until she finds herself genuinely caring for him, worrying about his physical frailty. Hes become her mentor and she knows she needs him to better herself. Theirs is an intimate, suggestive relationship based upon an unusual, unhealthy symbiosis, but through it, they help each other reach some degree of fulfillment.
Newcomer Jodie Whitakers performance is stunning. Shes a great match for OToole. Together they capture the humor, truth and strangeness of their romance, and make this film very worth seeing.
Films about aging are a hard sell in our youth-oriented culture, and director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi deserve kudos for taking on the subject and delivering such a provocative and moving film.