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KFF: Venus

I am, all in all, a little uncertain about quite what to make of Venus, the Kilgore Film Festival’s 4th selection. On the one hand, the performances are magnificent, funny and frequently touching. On the other hand, the behavior of the characters can be so off-putting and creepy as to make the viewer squirm, and it is difficult to say precisely what Venus is trying to tell us.

Maurice (Peter O’Toole) is an aging actor who is rapidly approaching the end of his life. He bickers with his geriatric friends, Ian and Donald (Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths) and occasionally visits his ex-wife, Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave). The rest of his time is spent attending the theater and occasionally getting acting work (mostly as a dead or dying man).

Enter Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of Ian’s niece. Ian believes she has come to London to care for him in his old age. Jessie, however, has different ideas. She sleeps late, guzzles every drop of alcohol in the house and spends her days snacking on the couch in front of the telly. She has a vague idea of procuring some modeling work, but no apparent game plan. Her great-uncle is distraught. Maurice is amused.

As a favor to his friend and, more importantly, because he finds her rather attractive, Maurice starts taking Jessie around town and looks for modeling work for her. So begins a relationship that seems largely unhealthy (it would be difficult to review this movie without recourse to the word “lecherous”), but perhaps Maurice and Jessie can learn a few things from each other before the credits start to roll.

Venus is probably Peter O’Toole’s best role in about 20 years (since 1987’s The Last Emperor, to be exact). His performancemore than makes the movie, it is the movie. With more than five decades of acting for the screen behind him, it is likely that only Peter O’Toole could inhabit the role with such perfect style and complete ease. Maurice is O’Toole, and at the same time he is not.

Meanwhile, O’Toole’s co-stars have nothing to be ashamed of. Phillips and Griffiths are hilarious and poignant, and Redgrave lights up the screen. Her character is criminally underused. Then, of course, there is Whittaker in her first major film role. She delivers solid, memorable work despite working opposite a legendary cadre of experienced thespians (and being the youngest cast member with a large speaking part by a factor of several decades). There is a lot to like here.

I am by no means old, and I will not even be approaching old age for some decades yet. In fact, I am even younger than Jodie Whittaker (if only slightly). However, I can certainly appreciate the sensitive, nuanced treatment that old age receives here. The extreme generation-gap did not in any way hinder my empathy with these deeply-human characters: their joys and regrets, the pain, physical limitations and humiliations that come with age, the confusion and amusement at younger generations. In its best moments, Venus is about aging and what we can learn from those who have, and it is handled with grace and understanding.

Overall, though, the messages are mixed and a bit haphazard. This is a story about two adults who are perfectly happy to take advantage of each other, and fully willing to indulge each other in their respective vices. Maurice gets a kick out of the illusion of physical intimacy with Jessie. Jessie gets Maurice to indulge her with things she can’t afford.

Maurice is something of a hedonist, and he has made some choices that he regrets. When he thinks about it he seems to feel rather empty, but we gather that he tries not to think about it. “Do you really like that?” Jessie asks incredulously after Maurice has breathed deeply of her neck. “‘That,'” the impotent Maurice wryly replies, “is all there is.” Jessie is well on her way to living an equally self-centered life. However, something happens to both of them, although it is a bit difficult to tell what.

Both characters seem to have grown considerably from having known each other, simply because that is what is supposed to happen in a movie about an unlikely friendship. And if the friendship itself seemed more likely to be a negative force than a positive one during most of its existence . . . Well, perhaps there is more at work here than we can readily discern, or perhaps the emperor has no clothes. Either way, Venus is a quiet, moving film with jarringly vulgar sensibilities. It has its moments, but it’s not quite my style.

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~ by Jared on April 30, 2007.

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