Lust, not love, saves the day in Venus. The lust of a very old, very washed-up actor named Maurice for a very young woman. That the geezer is played by Peter O'Toole, who, at 75, still emits a singularly beguiling brand of iconic leer, partially negates the setup's ick factor.
But it's also the seriousness spared on desire itself, both old and young, by writer Hanif Kureishi (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) and director Roger Michell (Notting Hill), that stops Venus from slithering into the slums of indiewood pederast chic or sexed-up Lifetime movie maudlin.
Unlike the real O'Toole, Maurice in his youth was an also-ran in the early-1960s British thespian renaissance. Today he spends his days at the pub with friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) and other journeyman actors. They recall past glories, scour the trades for bit parts and the obituaries for the latest peer death, bitch about infirmities and basically wait for the Reaper to reap. You might say it's depressing.
After Maurice's doctor tells him he may need prostate surgery, both he and Venus' audience are seriously in need of something non-death-related, and voilà in pops Ian's 19-year-old grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker).
Maurice heh-heh agrees to look after the girl, who's, by the way, hardly the second coming of the hottie. Actually, Jessie is a rather plain, lazy, lower-class chav, a sloppy pop- and suds-swilling, insecure wreck with a Mike Skinner-y crap boyfriend.
Still, she's got a figure on her, and Maurice cannot help but be stirred by her in a way that if performed by any actor not named O'Toole would completely gross us out. Plus, there's the safety net of knowing his staff of desire is long past its expiration date. "I can still take a theoretical interest," he remarks.
Anyway, you know what happens next: Maurice's lust remains but is augmented by a real affection for this particular girl, the last he will know, as mortality looms larger; and Jessie learns much from his font of wisdom and becomes a better person. Obvious, yes, but it's the incremental how and why of it that makes Venus so much more than late-career Oscar bait for O'Toole.
Maurice's desire for the girl becomes the portal to redemption for every woman he has probably cheated on, represented here by his droll ex-wife Valerie (a delightfully, carelessly disheveled Vanessa Redgrave). That is, not being able to do something about his lust enables him to appreciate everything he really adores about women although sheer panting horndog interests never leave the picture. Jessie, meanwhile, sees the grasping humanity beneath Maurice's wrinkles and dry bons mots and enjoys a by-accident transfer of dignity if she can resist availing herself of his superior finances, which, again, sounds rote and hokey, but Venus instead becomes an emotional thriller as we wait to see whether either character's better angels prevail.
Delightfully perverse to the end, O'Toole has a ham's old time playing with our notions of just how frail age has rendered him. Words like "moony," "shameless," "romantic" and "filthy relish" respectively describe Maurice's answer when Jessie asks what parts of her he most likes thinking about, resulting in an escalating series of blandishments "your legs, your behind, your eyes, your elbows" before O'Toole practically licks the payoff of "your cunt." Unrepentant letch, usurious player and suave empathy inform the same soul with little contradiction; it's just a day's work for this Peter.
Michell and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos support their star's endeavor: A shot lit from above strips away the years to reveal the lasting sculptural integrity of O'Toole's features; other shots use the glum light of British day to reveal his filmy, dry skin and rheumy eyes. But the real surprise here is Whittaker, in her movie debut, who not only stands up to her god-level co-star but also offers her own version of knock-kneed grace.
Three years ago, Kureishi and Michell crafted The Mother, a terrific, disturbing senior-desire-as-nightmare movie about a sixtysomething grandmother (Anne Reid) falling for Daniel Craig before he became Bond. I'd like to fantasize that Venus is on an archetypical timeline with The Mother, where the erotic disasters suffered by Reid have led to O'Toole's septuagenarian acceptance. Maybe Venus is too humble in scope and ambition for "great," but a movie with such a humane, ambiguous and casually blasphemous view of desire, and with its endless bits of small decencies in the face of everyday indignities, will get this vote any day.
Ian Grey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.