OVERLOOKED AND WORTH SEEING
Right around the time that Forrest Whitaker was completing a clean sweep of the spring acting awards, it became apparent that another sentimental favorite was being ignored: Peter O'Toole. Granted, his small film had come out at the very tail end of the year with very little promotion. The actor, the most-nominated (without a win) in Oscar history, had received a Lifetime Achievement award the year before, but had accepted it warily, saying he still wanted to win one outright and that he still had more performances in him.
Well, he was right. He does, even well into his 70s. And while VENUS got some attention for his nomination--and then disappeared almost immediately after the award season ended--it is a film that should be seen in its own right.
O'Toole plays Maurice Russell, an aged wreck of a matinee idol who now mostly gets work as film corpses or occasionally roles as an old Pantaloon--in short, he is now a day player. But while there's snow on the roof, there's still fire in the furnace, and what one person may consider open-minded and adventurous behavior another might consider to be the exploits of a dirty old man. When one of his best friends (Leslie Phillips) takes in his teen-aged great niece as a supposed caretaker, Maurice is besotted. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is not the most proper young lady, but her very slovenliness is like catnip for the old sod, and he begins a campaign to woo her, the one thing she has no defenses for, and one of the more unusual May-December romances (if one can call it such) ensues.
Hanif Kureishi's screenplay, inspired by the Junichiro Tanizaki's novella, "Diary of a Mad Old Man," is biting, sharp-tongued and pulls few punches. Under Roger Michell's direction, the film is appropriately claustrophobic and cramped, like Maurice's world, and the chiaroscuro lighting often catches just a brow or a famously blue eye now set in a creased and aging road map of a face. But O'Toole's performance is as brave as any he's ever given, touching and yet even loathsome and very human. Whittaker takes equal chances, risking total unlikeability to create a realistic object for Maurice's affections. And Vanessa Redgrave turns in a marvellous cameo as Maurice's wife (or ex-wife--we're kept guessing, and for good reason). This is not a sunny film, nor a film that will leave you uplifted. Like NOTES ON A SCANDAL, it is yet another sad tale of the shrinking world of the elderly, and it is performed with an equally unsentimental sharpness. And one hopes that O'Toole has MANY more performances in him. But as long as there's a master working, one should catch this film.
Now available on demand, on cable, and in video rental stores.