Maurice Russell, a septuagenarian actor facing the end of his career and life, gazes raptly at the present that fate has given him: the company of a sullen but strangely desirable teenage girl. At first, his appraising looks give her the creeps, but something about his courtliness piques her curiosity—not to mention her vanity. This is a man who says something about comparing her to a summer’s day. She is intrigued to learn that during his most recent hospital stay, he passed the time thinking about her body. Which parts, she asks? “Your hair,” Maurice murmurs, “your legs, your behind, your eyes . . . your elbows.” Then he adds, in a succulent near-sigh of erotic nostalgia, ” . . . your cunt.”
That distant pbbbtt! sound you hear is a collective Starbucks spit-take, courtesy of a thousand Academy voters watching their “for your consideration” screeners of Venus. In most regards, this funeral wreath of a film about a dying thespian in lust-struck twilight is made-to-order Oscar bait: a gift-wrapped vehicle for a screen legend, full of reverential nods to the craft, with reminders of the star’s mortality delivered over loudspeakers from a running hearse. What keeps Venus from sinking ass-deep in Golden Pond is its sexual reverie—and a star who couldn’t play a cutely neutered grumpy old man if commanded by God.
Peter O’Toole has never been an actor to disappear into a part, any more than his blue-eyed devil Lawrence could blend into the sands of Arabia. Nor would you want him to: O’Toole was born to sweep a role around him like a matador’s cape, transforming it by virtue of sheer heroic panache. Maurice, the protagonist of Venus, is a suit lovingly tailored to O’Toole’s ravaged but commanding frame.
Apart from in the operating theater, Maurice’s command performances are done; he’s shown on a TV soap playing the part most available to actors his age—a corpse. (“Typecast again!” cackles his estranged wife, played by a cheerily disheveled Vanessa Redgrave.) His life is a round of prostate exams and sitcom-like coffee dates with his crotchety fellow player Ian (Leslie Phillips). One day he meets Ian’s teenage relative Jessie (Jodie Whittaker)—and something about the girl’s insolent youth (and the careless peek of midriff between her sweater and jeans) sets Maurice’s pulse racing.
The screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi, made his name with disruptive sex-as-weaponry comedies such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. His script for Venus appears early on to be riffing on Lolita—another story about an older man and his unsuitable, inscrutable object of desire. Humbert’s gauche Lolita popped gum; Maurice’s Venus sucks salt off her fingers from a packet of crisps while he watches, entranced. But Maurice can see his foolishness clearly, even fondly. It’s a last hurrah. Acutely aware of his lost potency and waning health, he hasn’t got a lust for life; he’s got a lust for lust. “I can still take a theoretical interest,” he tells Jessie, a Sporty Spice Eve who’s first seen reaching for an apple—and later, ominously, sports a snake tattoo.
As Maurice negotiates little prizes of intimacy from the brusque, tarty girl—the stroke of a hand, three kisses on a deliciously bare shoulder—O’Toole manages a delicate balancing act, neither coming off as a perv nor erasing the character’s frank sexual longing. Without Maurice’s “theoretical” libido (and Kureishi’s profane wit), Venus might’ve been a puddle of maudlin goo. Movies that trade heavily on our lifelong associations with a star can quickly become clammy exercises in celebrity genuflection. As delightful as it is to watch O’Toole summon from his entire career— the sensualist’s leer he uncurled in 1980’s The Stunt Man, the matinee-idol braggadocio he wielded so irresistibly in 1982’s My Favorite Year—there’s occasionally the sense of director Roger Michell tugging at our sleeves, gushing, “Isn’t he wonderful?”
It’s hard to blame him, though—in part because O’Toole brings an air of gentle self-mockery to the role that offsets the morbid, if candid, emphasis on his frailty. Maurice is a part that encourages and mocks an actor’s narcissism in equal measure. Even wearing a leaky catheter, he’s as idealized a figure as the theater folk in All About Eve—people whose wits are keener than everyone else’s, whose passions are grander, whose tongues are never at a loss for acid rejoinders.
When Maurice and Ian duck into an abbey filled with the remains of their late colleagues—Robert Shaw, Laurence Harvey, Richard Beckinsale—it’s almost impossible to look at the haggard O’Toole, now 74, and not worry about how little time we have left in his company, even if you resent the movie for making the point so insistently. And yet the star’s own ragged glory rebuffs any impulse to send flowers. “Come on, old man!” Maurice growls, slapping himself in the face to rouse what spirit he has left.