Premiere magazine recently rated Peter O'Toole's performance in Lawrence of Arabia the greatest ever committed to celluloid. It was his fourth film, his first lead, and a hell of a break - though he lost the Oscar to Gregory Peck and To Kill a Mockingbird.
He's been nominated six times since (for Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, and My Favourite Year), and famously never won, except for an Honorary Award in 2003. 'I'm still in the game,' he promised then. And he is: whatever else happens, the 74-year-old will be on the list when the nominations are announced January 23.
O'Toole is no chameleon, he's a personality actor. We admire him for his effrontery, his verbal bite, his aplomb, his rakish charm and class. Although it wasn't written for him, all these characteristics are well to the fore in Venus, as they are in My Favourite Year, The Stunt Man, and most of O'Toole's work. And that's not to denigrate the man or the performances. Often as not he ennobles the material they give him. O'Toole always seems to live more ferociously than the rest of us. If he's bad, it's because the story can't contain him.
In Venus he's Maurice, a famous thespian, not retired but relegated to sage counselors and dying dads. Mostly he does the rounds with Ian, a fellow actor of unfirm age (Leslie Phillips): they prop each other up between drinks and take in the latest show at the Royal Court.
When Ian's nineteen-year-old niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) arrives she's supposed to take care of him in return for a place to stay while she finds a job. But lifelong bachelor Ian takes one look at this brash northern lass and sticks his head under the pillows for a pre-nap nap. It falls to gallant Maurice to take the girl under his wing, escort her to the best watering holes, and supply a friendly shoulder when she passes out on the taxi ride home. What follows is not so much a love story as an opportunistic flirtation: he'll indulge the spirit as far as his weak flesh and her firm hand will allow; she'll turn a blind eye as long as he picks up the tab and doesn't push too far.
If these negotiations teeter on the edge of humiliation, the film shies away from it. Not, I suspect, because writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell lack the stomach for it (their last collaboration was another May-December affair, The Mother, and that pitched headlong into melodramatic turmoil), but because O'Toole is too good to succumb to those traps: too virile, and charming, and gracious. Maurice is a dirty old man (maybe), a dying dad and a sage counselor all rolled into one, but watching O'Toole you see the same quick wit and panache he's always had - a man, not a corpse.
Jodie Whittaker too: she takes a character with precious little going for her on the page - Jessie is clueless and casually cruel - and she shows us warmth, pragmatism, a young person beginning to wake up to the world.
Venus is no masterpiece - it has a theatrical quality that sometimes feel forced, and the sentimental ending is just that - but it's touching and funny and it has a rare quality that comes through most strongly in the lovely, brief scenes between O'Toole and Vanessa Redgrave, as one of his ex wives. It feels lived.
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