Venus (2006): Roger Michell’s Feature, Starring Peter O’Tool in Oscar Caliber Performance

Representing another fruitful collaboration of the team that made the widely acclaimed “The Mother,” Venus reunites director Roger Michell (Notting Hill), screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, “Intimacy”) and producer Kevin Loader.

“Venus” represents the same modest, well-acted chamber piece that “The Mother” (which premiered in Cannes last year) was. Thematically, the film is based on a similar character and same juxtaposition, here in the form of an unexpected relationship between an old bitter charcater and a much younger and spunkier one that revitalizes the former, bringing joy to the autumn of his life.

Reversing the genders of “The Mother” protags, in “Venus,” the older character is a vet actor, Maurice, (Peter O’Toole) and the younger protagt is an uneducated woman named Jessie (well played by newcomer Jodie Whittaker).the grand-niece of Maurice’s best friend, also a vet actor, Ian (Leslie Phillips).

As in most British drama, particularly in Kureishi’s work, there’s a huge gap in age and social class, and here also erotic tension between the two central figures.

Was Peter O’Toole “prophetic” in 2004, when he initially rejected the Honorary Oscar from the Academy, based on his belief that he was still in the run for a legit recognition, not quite ready for a career achievement trophy (In the end, you may recall, O’Toole consented and accepted the award). I mention that, because O’Toole astonishingly subtle performance as the seventysomething thespian should earn him his eighth Oscar nomination (and perhaps the coveted award itself), when Miramax opens the movie stateside December 15. (See Oscar Alert)

Right now, “Venus” plays the major film festivals. It premieres this weekend in Telluride and goes to Toronto next week, where O’Toole is bound to be critically acclaimed, giving Miramax enough ammunition to plan a strategic Oscar campaign for him at year’s end.

Drawing on the narrative paradigm of the “Outsider,” a stranger who changes peoples’ lives dramatically just by sheer physical presence, Venus tells the story of Maurice and Ian, a pair of cantankerous, though not devoid of humor, old thespians, whose comfortable daily routine is disrupted by the arrival of Ians grand-niece Jessie.

In the first chapters, Maurice and Ian, two vet actor friends are seen chatting about their deteriorating health, increased reliance on medication, declining memory, and so on. Comfy with each other, they bicker and exchange witty barbs affectionately in their regular meetings in their modest London flats and coffee shops. Occasionally, they are joined in the coffee shop or pub by a third actor friend, Donald (Richard Griffiths, soon to be seen as the teacher in “The History Boys”).

Ian is preparing for the arrival of Jessie, his nieces teenage daughter, who is arriving from the more provincial North of England to stay with him, hoping she would take care of his needs. However, initially, Jessie proves to be your typical “irresponsible” girl, lazy, crass, hard-drinking, and cuursing, making it clear she has no intent of becoming Ian’s maid, nurse, or even social companion.

To help his friend, Maurice takes Jessie under his wing and starts showing her London. He takes her to see a play, to movie set to watch him play a bit role, and to the National Gallery to see (again) his favorite painting, Velazquez’s portriat of Venus (thus the picture’s title). The film’s very last scene makes the title even more poignant.

Gradually, to Maurice and Jessee’s surprise, they grow fond of and become attached to each other. A brief scene to his former wife (played by the still regal Vanessa Redgrave) shows that Maurice has probably never met an abrasive girl like Jesse. Even so, more open-minded than his age or position would suggest, he dubs Jessie his Venus.

At this point, living a life of quiet desperation, Maurice is resigned to the fact that his own life is coming to an end, but through Jesse, he rediscovers repressed feelings and desire that’s been dormant for years. For her part, Jessie is drawn to Maurice, confiding in him.

The film takes a turn when Jessie starts dating a loutish youth, and soon abuses Maurice’s trust by asking for money and other favors. Maurice consents, aware that his romantic hope for Jessie are futile, but also recognizing the last taste of youth and passion she has been granting him.

Under his tutorship, a deeper, more intimate, and even erotic relationship develops between the duo. Very much a journey of self-discovery movie, in due process, both Maurice and Jessie discover how little they each know each other’s needs and desires, their expectations from others, and from life in general.

“Venus” could have ben caled Educating Jessie, after the 1984 movie, “Educating Rita,” with Michael Caine and Julie Walters as his student-hairdrsser. Indeed, along with conversations, educational sessions, visits to to museums and to the theater (one scene is set in the Royal Court Theatre), there are more intimate scenes. In time, Maurice sets a bath for Jessie and is allowed to watch her, and later, she lets him caress, but not kiss, her neck.

In position of undeniable power, Jessie sets the rules, at least as far as physical contact is concerned. When Maurice crosses the line and grabs her breasts (for example), Jesse gets upset, walks out, and disappears for a day or, only to come back later.

Problem is, the film can’t decide how far to go in exploring the relationship between Maurice and Jessie, and thus it unfolds as step and counter-step, until reaching a denouement in a satisfying if also predictable manner.

Let me explain. Since the female protagonist is very young, pushing the text into a too explicitly sexual direction might suggest that Maurice is a dirty old man and that his is a corruptive, damaging influence on a teenage girl. There’s a boyfriend in the background, and in one scene, they even use Muarice’s own flat to make out, only to be caught by him, but the boy is Jessie’s age.

Vanessa Redgrave plays Maurices atill loving former wife and mother of his three children, whom Maurice had abandoned for another, younger actress. Restricted to two or three scenes, Redgrave’s character is underdeveloped and so is Ian’s. Is Ian gay Is he infatuated with Maurice beyond the permitted professional camaraderie and personal friendship

In remarkably subdued performance, O’Toole, an actor who often chews the scenery with his histrionics, portrays the kind of old man we have never seen before, certainly not in American films. Though not physically well, Maurice is not limping, and he is not crotchety, as Henry Fonda was in “Golden Pond,” a film that won Fonda his first and only Oscar, just months before he died.

“Venus” doesn’t make the mistake of de-sexualizing an old man. Reflecting the puritanical, hygienic, and perhaps even hypocritical nature of sexuality in American culture, Hollywood movies seldom depict desire, and if they do, it’s in a pejorative and judgmental way. In American movies, the old men, usually grandparents, tend to bond not with their children as with their grandchildren. Refreshingly, there are no children and no such subplots in “Venus.”

At times, the romantic and erotic scenes in “Venus” feel deliberately awkward, and they might make both younger and older viewers uncomfortable. It’s like watching your old father or grandfather desire (and lusts after) a much younger alluring woman.

In wish the resolution had not been so pat or moralistic in suggesting that it’s not only the wise old who can teach the young in the ways of the world, but that the young may have profound influence on the older folks too. Subtle as it is, ultimately, “Venus” is a film about life lessons, and in the end, Jesse transforms from a boorish girl to a more sensitive, confident, and independent woman.

Ultra modest in scope and ambition, “Venus” is a two-handler “Relationship” film, and one about great acting. The story begins and ends with visual symmetry by the ocean. The outdoor scenes, depicting Maurice and Jessie’s outings, are meant to open up the inherently indoor yarn, but succeed only partially in making the movie less static; in moments, the movie is a tad too dull and bleak.

“Venus” is not necessarily better acted than “The Mother” was, but it has a name-cast, headed by Peter O’Toole and Vanessa Redgrave in a small, supporting role.

Oscar Alert

Laced with a good deal of humor and irony, “Venus” is more commercially viable than “Mother,” and Miramax could exploit its subject, high-caliber acting, and prestige, in a way that other small British movies have in the past. Peter Yates’ “The Dresser, in 1983, also set in the theater world, with Oscar-nominated turns from Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, comes to mind.

Incidentally, Henry Fonda was roughly the same age as O’Toole is now, 74, when he won the Oscar for “On Golden Pond.”

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