Maurice (Peter O'Toole) is a highly regarded, aging British actor in a familiar, Odd Couple-esque relationship with Ian (Leslie Phillips), his doddering best friend and a fellow thespian from back in the day. It's obvious that Maurice was the swinging lady-killer with his still-suave, commanding figure and majestic intonations.
Ian, meanwhile, was the character actor content to share the stage with one of the greats. While willing to rage a bit at the passage of time and its affects, Ian appreciates having such esteemed companionship as the end draws near. Yet Maurice remains committed to living in ways Ian finds unbecoming for a man his age. When Ian's young niece, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), is forced upon him as a caretaker, Maurice develops a far more healthy attraction for the girl than Ian or society would deem fit.
With that basic premise, Venus could have easily slipped into Odd Couple territory or worse — a Jack Nicholson vehicle directed by Nancy Meyers purporting to tell us what an old, horny guy wants. The project's pedigree — from writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell — holds the promise of a wry sensibility. The pair collaborated on the television miniseries adaptation of Kureishi's novel The Buddha of Suburbia and more recently on The Mother, another tale dealing with society's discomfort with advancing age and our sexual natures, although that film chose to highlight the older woman/younger man dynamic with Anne Reid and a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as the leads.
Here Kureishi and Michell use the far more traditional older male/younger female configuration.
Jessie, the film's titular mythic figure, is not truly the focus of our gaze — she shares the spotlight with Maurice. She is simply the object by which we come to appreciate Maurice and, by extension, O'Toole.
As the lion in winter, Maurice enjoys modern privileges like the additional pampering from the on-set crews that come as a result of his storied work, but he remains a consummate professional. His respect for his craft has earned him this level of stature. Even his caddish ways are easier to excuse from someone in the know.
But Jessie knows nothing about him or that world and even less about the world beyond her young, working-class experiences. Initially she doesn't seem to know enough to care, which makes one wonder what Maurice sees in her at all. What matters is that Maurice sees, and O'Toole gives him splendid vision.
O'Toole's eyes, face and every aspect of his frail body perk up as if this the last gorgeous breath in him. The accolades that have been heaped upon him (Venus garnered him an eighth Oscar nomination) are well deserved for what amounts to a master class in acting. It also draws attention to all that is wrong with the hype and excesses of the Oscar season. O'Toole's fine work can certainly earn nominations, but talk of a win has less to do with said work than whether or not he (or any nominee) can or is willing to campaign on the magazine, talk show and guild-screening circuit. With the industry ablaze over how sick O'Toole is, the man breezed in for a brief round of appearances, most notably a spot on The Late Show with David Letterman before making a hasty return to England.
Through it all, though, Maurice is the reason for the consideration. This man who dares to dream, one last time, of laying a hand on a firm breast or kissing a set of plump lips. He opens himself up to life. In fact, he never stopped opening up to its possibilities. And O'Toole shows us that there is still much life and performance left in him, too.
Michell captures the curiously beautiful in Maurice. It is certainly not by chance. He and Kureishi have proven to be astute filmmakers with an eye and ear for alternative views of life. Michell has trained his sights on the collision of the everyman and the star before.
Notting Hill aimed broadly, and why not with Hugh Grant (OK, not even close to being an everyman) and Julia Roberts, but neither of them can truly touch the grace and elegance of O'Toole, who gives Michell (and us) a king with a most common longing for one last glimpse of the goddess. Grade: B