Thursday, March 15, 2007

Venus, the film for which Peter O’Toole received his most recent Oscar nomination for acting, may be one of the first in a genre that I can safely predict we will be seeing a lot more of in the relatively near future – the senior date flick. It’s not the first – indeed not even the first by director Roger Michell, best known for Notting Hill, who also directed The Mother, a movie one could read as the feminine counterpart to Venus. In that earlier film, Anne Reid beds her daughter’s boyfriend, played by a pre-Bond Daniel Craig looking rather fuzzy in a beard. In Venus, O’Toole plays a randy old thespian who becomes enchanted with his friend’s niece’s daughter, Jessie, portrayed by relative newcomer Jodie Whittaker. The age difference here is not subtle – O’Toole starred in Lawrence of Arabia twenty years before Whittaker was born.

I’ve never been that fond of O’Toole as an actor, but in Venus he is simply brilliant, conveying a difficult combination of lust & fatherly pride often with little more than his eyes or the corners of his mouth. Even as an over-the-top letch – one-part Henry Higgins, one-part Larry Flynt – O’Toole has to be a minimalist in his portrayal for this role to work, since Whittaker’s character is defined by sullen youth & a rural working-class inarticulateness. Once O’Toole’s character – and the audience – figure out why this woman, whom O’Toole insists on calling Venus, was sent away to the city, it becomes apparent that she has no intention ever of returning to the bog from whence she came, but she also has almost no job skills & only a modicum of curiosity. Her basic reaction to most comments on the part of others is to stare back at them wordlessly – a type that cinema has typically relegated to macho actors like Charles Bronson or Robert Mitchum. If a female is given these characteristics, it usually means that she’s a woman of mystery. But if Jessie is a mystery in Venus, it’s primarily to herself. That’s a difficult role to play – Whittaker is superb in it – but an even more difficult role to play off of, and this is where O’Toole’s mastery really takes command. There’s not a scene in this film – tho O’Toole’s appearance at the Oscars suggests that this might not be all acting – in which the actor’s body language doesn’t suggest some level of discomfort.

Michell livens the picture up by giving the audience more than a little of O’Toole’s character engaged with his buddies, portrayed by Leslie Phillips & recent Tony award winner Richard Giffiths, whose scenes are, for the most part, played as pure comedy. Another important story arc involves O’Toole’s character’s ex-wife, portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave.

It’s not unusual for Hanif Kureishi scripts – My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Intimacy & The Mother are others – to focus on characters more than plot and Venus is no exception. O’Toole’s Maurice tries hard to live large, but in many respects he’s a shell of the man he once may have been, still working well into his seventies, residing in a small flat behind a café while his ex-, one of several characters he helps out financially in this film, still lives in the big house with all the memorabilia from his glory days. There’s a scene in which Jessie/Venus wants some nice clothes so he takes her to a posh boutique to try on some little black dresses, knowing full well that he lacks the funds to pay for anything. From his perspective, it’s the process that counts, but she’s humiliated & furious.

Whittaker’s character also has to walk a fine line between her disgust at the age of this man who wants to lick her shoulder or put his hands on her bosom – it might become “vomitous” she suggests – while at the same time actually liking him. In general, she does a fine job. This would be an interesting film to see in a triple bill with the likes of Gods and Monsters or Mighty Aphrodite, pictures that portray older men (Ian McKellan & Woody Allen) attracted to young beauties (Brendan Fraser & Mira Sorvino). Venus is the only one of the three to suggest that a young person might be physically repulsed by such advances. Although, and this is where Michell’s subtlety as a director confronts its limit, O’Toole’s Maurice is the only one of the three older men to be wearing a catheter.

Part of what makes this a senior date flick – the average age of the audience at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute where I saw it last weekend appeared to be well into the sixties – is that it’s comfortably predictable. If you can’t tell where this film is going, it’s not that they haven’t painted a picture for you. Two of them, in fact, both quite literal. Similarly, an important detail between Maurice and his ex-wife – she describes herself only as his wife in the one scene where that’s a significant fact – is that he abandoned her with three children under the age of six. But there are scenes where the presence of children would seem essential, and these narrative kiddies (all grown up now we presume) are nowhere in sight. The repartee between the three male actors may be comic, but at points it descends into literal slapstick – there is one scene that could have appeared in a Three Stooges vehicle & another, when O’Toole is trying to spy on Jessie modeling for a life drawing class, & finds himself hanging from a door as it swings open & takes out an easel or two, which draws a cheap laugh until you realize just how cheap it was. Maurice also has an illness & you know just which part of the body is most directly affected.

Still, films in which seniors are taken as lead characters are themselves rare enough. Venus is an enjoyable diversion – more if you’re interested in watching how a great actor can carry one scene after another – but hopefully the aging of the film-going populace won’t restrict our choices going forward just to date flicks organized around the fantasies of impotent old men.