Along with the late Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole holds the
distinction of being nominated for the Academy Award seven times
without ever winning the statue. In 2002, the Academy attempted
to correct this oversight by presenting him with an honorary award for
lifetime achievement. O'Toole originally declined the honor at first,
thinking that if he accepted that statue, he would not be eligible
to compete for any future awards. At age 70, he felt he still had a few
good years left. (I guess he wasn't aware that Paul Newman accepted
his honorary Oscar the year before winning the Best Actor award for
THE COLOR OF MONEY.) Well, there's a contingent of critics and
other pundits who feel that O'Toole might just break his old record
(and maybe even win the prize) for his lead performance in
VENUS.

  VENUS is the latest collaboration between screenwriter Hanif
Kureishi and director Roger Michell. The pair had previously worked
together on the television production
THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA
(1993) and THE MOTHER (2003). The latter film courted controversy in
part because it dared to portray a woman over sixty with sexual desires
who enters into an affair with a hunky construction worker half her age.
One might argue, then, that
VENUS is simply the duo giving equal time
to the male. Part of the problem, of course, is that cinema is littered
with on screen pairings of older men and younger women (while the
opposite is always a cause for raised eyebrows and commentaries.)

  VENUS centers on Maurice (Peter O'Toole), an aging actor of some
repute now reduced to portraying dying men on television. He and his
best mate Ian (Leslie Phillips) pass their days reminiscing, reading the
obits and drinking. Ian, feeling a tad unsteady, agrees to take in his
niece's daughter Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker), a sullen, spunky
teenager for whom the job of caring for Ian is not what she expected
either. Recognizing that the two grate on each other's nerves, Maurice
takes a particular interest in Jessie and they form a rather delicate
friendship tinged with a frisson of lechery.

  Even though Maurice is old and suffering with prostate cancer,
he still feels desire and still wants to experience the joys of being in
the presence of an attractive young woman. Some have seen Maurice
as a sort of Henry Higgins figure tutoring the unformed Jessie (whom
he has dubbed "Venus"). For her part, Jessie is aware of her power
over Maurice and wields it to her advantage. One of the problems
with the movie, for me, is that Jessie is somewhat of a schematic
character -- she's there as much as a function of the plot as she is
a character in it. It doesn't fully detract from Whittaker's performance
but it does dilute her presence in the film.

  There are some fine moments in the movie, though, particularly
a few scenes between Maurice and his ex-wife Valerie (the exemplary
Vanessa Redgrave). Unbelievably, this is the first on screen pairing
of O'Toole and Redgrave and there scenes together carry a special
quality. Each brings out the best in the other and I came away
wishing that the film had been more about their relationship. Leslie
Phillips also has a few terrific scenes, most notably one in which
both he and O'Toole visit the church of St. Paul's in Covent Garden
where the walls are covered with plaques dedicated to deceased
actors. They rattle off the names of a few of their colleagues and
embrace and dance in honor of their comrades. Richard Griffiths is
also on hand as a fellow actor, although he isn't given near enough
to do.

  The movie belongs to O'Toole who gets to strut his stuff and
the role has been carefully tailored to his talents. The last act of the
movie is filled with problems and missteps, but O'Toole, Redgrave and
Phillips elevate the material to a higher plain.
VENUS isn't exactly a
great movie, but it does offer a fine showcase for O'Toole.


          Rating:                B-
          MPAA Rating:        R for language, some sexual content
                                          and brief nudity
          Running time:       95 mins.
Venus
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.