It’s tempting to pigeonhole Venus as the story of a dirty old man, and that is certainly one way to read the film. But even the most prudish viewers will be hard put to resist the charm and compassion of Peter O’Toole’s performance. As his Maurice gazes at the crass, coltish Jessie, a half a dozen different emotions flit across his face – desire, affection, confusion, grandfatherly protectiveness – all of them jostling for position. It is easily his best performance for over a decade.
But O’Toole’s brilliance would have been lost without a decent foil, provided here by Jodie Whittaker, whose consummate timing and tangible vulnerability belie the fact that this is her first film. She matches O’Toole beat for beat, never once seeming out of her depth. She even outshines the rest of the brilliant veteran cast – geniuses like Leslie Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Griffiths – though to be fair their parts are much smaller and written more for comic relief than dramatic significance.
Yet, as with all of Kureishi’s work, there is more to Venus than a love story, however unconventional. The gentle, teasing scenes between Maurice and Ian as they totter around feebly, arguing constantly and occasionally spouting Shakespeare, are among the most tender and hilarious in the film. For once you get the feeling that a film is laughing with old men and not at them.
For all its humour, Venus isn’t light entertainment. There’s a tragic aspect to both the humour and the romance - a disquieting proximity to the indignity of old age and the spectre of mortality. But it’s also one of the most heartbreakingly honest and poignant films of the decade.
- Alistair Fairweather
This bitter-sweet comedy is a small piece of cinematic genius - funny, insightful, complex and tragic. Only Peter O'Toole could turn a story about a dirty old man into such a rare gem.
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