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RUNNING TIME: 94 Minutes
• Commentary with director Roger Michell and producer Kevin Loader
• Venus, A Real Work of Art Making-of Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
“A seventy-five year-old man trying to fuck a twenty-five year-old girl? Who wouldn’t want to see that?”
Peter O’Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths, Vanessa Redgrave
Maurice Russell is not a well man. Old age and regret ravage his body and mind, his once-brilliant acting career has degenerated into a series of authority figure and corpse roles, and the high point of his days is popping pills with fellow septuagenarian thespian Ian and being impotent.
But even though Maurice lacks the proverbial “lead” in his proverbial “pencil,” that doesn’t stop him from coming on strong to Ian’s surly, provincial, and very young niece. And…wait for it…ah. I just threw up thinking about that. Good.
"Yep. Nothing says 'sexy' like an ascot. Also that I hate my turkey neck."
Conflict’s the key to every movie, so maybe it’s fitting that it’s gonna be the leitmotif behind this review. I honestly don’t know whether or not I liked Venus; after watching the special features, after capitulating on it all for thirty-six hours or so, I’m no closer to a decision than I was after I first watched it. But that’s not to say I don’t feel strongly about it.
Far from that.
Venus is incredibly well-made. I’ve never been much of a fan of director Roger Michell’s previous works (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, Enduring Love), but he certainly got his shit together for this one; his normal blend of overly artsy camera-work and preposterous story-telling got benched for this one, and the results are refreshingly low-key and believable (save for a time-lapse shot taken from a subway window that made me cringe). He gets to work from a surprisingly frank and honest script from writer Hanif Kureishi (of My Beautiful Launderette fame) that, at first glance, appears to be another take on the Pygmalion story, but becomes something deeper and far more illusive. Where he stumbles a bit is in the depiction of the aging actors’ relationships with one another. Their swearing, pill-popping, spontaneous dancing, and newspaper-fighting antics feel somewhat forced, like Kureishi’s trying for an R-Rated Grumpy Old Men movie. Luckily, his actors power through this. Leslie Phillips’ Ian, with his constant and unwarranted bickering, could becomes dreadfully tiresome, but the palpable fear of his own mortality he brings to the part helps reduce some of the preciousness the role might have on the page. Hell, they even get fucking Vanessa Redgrave to pop for fifteen minutes and just own the screen in the least glamorous role I’ve ever seen her in (yes, I am including Deep Impact).
And then there’s Peter O’Toole as Maurice. I tell ya, I was none too impressed with his work when I first saw the flick. A poon-hungry, fading former superstar? Not really a reach for the man, wouldn’t you say? Also, the years (and plastic surgery, anybody?) have not been kind to the once and future Lawrence of Arabia, and his work here just felt tired and listless. Plus, the shockingly lack of mobility in his face and eyes seemed to sap certain scenes of feeling, and for a film about an old man regaining the spark in his life, you kinda want to feel for the guy. But then I saw O’Toole in the behind-the-scenes documentary, and he’s vibrant and sharp and expressive and I realized, shit, the fucker was acting. And well. It made me rethink my original critique—this is a story about a man who has lost that spark and who tries valiantly and futilely to get it back. O’Toole presents that shell of a man unflinchingly, both physically and mentally, and that realism makes it all the more heartbreaking.
"Great. Something more degrading than Phantoms."
As good as he is, I think he’s matched by Jodie Whittaker as Jessie. She has the least interesting part, the catalyst and symbol of the past that reawakens something in Maurice. But Whittaker never feels like a plot device but rather an ordinary, fucked-up, and totally lost young woman who can hardly believe she’s worth enough to mean that much to Maurice. It’s a credit to her work that we can see her as both the regular girl she thinks she is and the divine inspiration that Maurice knows she is. The relationship between Maurice and Jessie is one of those sappy “life-affirming” ones we see in movies all the time, but O’Toole and Whittaker are far too good to want simply to warm our poor viewer hearts. They give their partnership weight; both parties have decidedly selfish and often unsympathetic interests in pursuing a relationship with the other, and that adds a realism that helps cut through some of the more potentially saccharine aspects of their interplay and makes the genuine love and respect that emerges between the two more affecting.
However, this is not just a story about a life-affirming friendship between an older man and a younger woman that forever changes both individuals. Don’t get me wrong, that part exists, but it’s not the only part. Venus is also very much about an old man that would really rather like to fuck a much younger girl. O’Toole’s Maurice is impotent, but you get the sense that if he wasn’t otherwise incapacitated (in the cockal region), he would go as far with Jessie as she would allow him to go (which, thankfully, isn’t far, but does include sticking her fingers in her crotch and offering them to Maurice). Much of the film centers on the complex, hushed sexual tango that occurs between the two and the give-and-take that results, and, frankly, it made me extremely uncomfortable. There’s the obvious physical and age discrepancies between Maurice and Jessie, yes, but I think more than that it’s the honesty with which Michell and Kureishi portray Maurice and his sexuality. Maurice is still a highly sexual being in his old age, the “Professor of Pussy,” as one character lovingly calls him, and no effort’s made to soften his urges and desires.
"Please, Mr. O'Toole, can we stop re-enacting your rape scene from Lawrence of Arabia?"
I appreciate and respect that kind of honesty, but it makes me more uncomfortable than anything in the collected works of Todd Solondz. American cinema has conditioned its followers to think of the elderly as either sexless or comically oversexed, and as savvy a moviegoer as I like to think I am, I’m just as beholden to that cliché as the rest of mainstream America is. Something like Venus comes along with a decidedly more liberal (read: European) take on the limits of sexuality, and it throws me for a loop and makes me just the tiniest bit queasy. Even though much of this flick is so good and thoughtful and intriguing, the sexual aspect keeps me from being able to say for sure whether I liked it or not.
What I can do is recommend Venus all the same. As uncomfortable as it made me, it’s provocative and wholly worth viewing, and I’d be remiss to say otherwise just because it made me squirm.
The picture is solid; what with all the handheld camerawork and gritty London ambience, I don’t think it’s supposed to look pristine, and the DVD fairly represents that. Same goes for the sound—this isn’t an immersive experience, and I doubt it should be. I much prefer the box art here than the theatrical one-sheet. Maurice and Jessie staring off wistfully is far more evocative than the stark, unflattering portrait of O’Toole used during the flick’s release (old people creep me out. Sue me).
Trust me, this shot is nowhere near as wholesome as it seems.
The features here are few. There’s a pretty dry commentary with Michell and producer Kevin Loader. They impart some good facts (like how the seemingly tailor-made-for-O’Toole part of Maurice was not tailor-made for him), but would it kill them to crack wise at all? Then, there’s a behind-the-scenes documentary that’s too puffy (equating your film to a beautiful painting even if there’s a thematic link to the film reeks of arrogance) but has some nice screen test footage of Whittaker as well as invaluable comments from O’Toole that further stand to showcase the commitment he brought to the role. The disc finishes off with an inconsequential set of deleted scenes.
This film made me feel uncomfortable, and though I’m sure my discomfort is partially intentional on the filmmakers’ part, it’s still a stumbling block for me. That said, the flick is absolutely worth watching, and the DVD offers some decent special features.
I'd like to bitch about how this shot makes painfully obvious a message that was rather subtly conveyed throughout the rest of the flick, but somehow, I don't care anymore.