Jennifer Merin reviews “Venus”

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FOR THE LUST OF “VENUS“

There’s temptation to spend this review’s 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 that’s scantily clad in whatever respectability Peter O‘Toole 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 O’Toole– now 74 and still remarkably handsome– playing Maurice, an elderly, almost-has-been actor who’s 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.

Maurice’s spirits rise when he becomes intrigued by and falls in lust with the young and naively cunning Jessie (Jodie Whitaker)– a troubled teen who’s a cross between a Lolita and a Miss Hoyden, and has a street smart toughness about her– who’s moved to London from the burbs to become a model, and to take care of– or mooch off of–her great uncle, Ian (Leslie Phillips), another aging actor in Maurice’s circle of friends.

In this exaggerated December-April (the girl’s 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 studio’s transom. He nicknames her “Venus,“ after the famous painting. And, yes, although he’s sexually impotent, he does cop a feel of her now and again– but in such a tentative, adolescent way that’s so imbued with hope and longing, it’s heartbreaking.

Is their December-April mutually exploitive but really unrequited sexuality discomforting to watch? Yes, sometimes. But, it’s entirely true to and appropriate for the story, and if you allow yourself to follow O‘Toole‘s 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. O’Toole’s 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. He’s 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 Whitaker‘s performance is stunning. She‘s a great match for O’Toole. 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.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).