January 07, 2007

MOVIES: Venus (Roger Michell, 2006)

Peter O'Toole stars as Maurice, an actor who was once "a little bit famous" but is now relegated to the occasional bit part, most often as someone who's dead or dying. He spends his days drinking and bickering with his pal Ian (Leslie Phillips), whose great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) has been sent to London to serve as a sort of live-in nurse for him.

Jessie has no interest in that role, nor is she temperamentally suited to it; she's a surly and uncommunicative girl who dreams of becoming a model. But Maurice is enchanted, and begins spending time with her, eventually falling in love.

We're so accustomed to equating love and sex; here we get a type of romance in which sex is never an issue. Maurice isn't just a dirty old man, and he's well aware that his attraction to someone more than 50 years younger is in some ways silly ("I can still take a theoretical interest," he tells Ian). It's not entirely about love, or even about lust; as much as anything, Maurice is in love with the idea of being in love one last time, of being captivated by youth and beauty.

And of course, of being captivating; O'Toole never forgets that Maurice is an actor, and his performance of the naughty old lech is both charming and seductive. Jessie can't resist it entirely -- who could? -- and she begins to return his affections even as she takes advantage of them. Even as genuine feelings develop, Maurice and Jessie don't lose sight of the ways in which each is manipulating, and being manipulated by, the other.

The performances are superb. O'Toole has gotten most of the attention (and it is thoroughly deserved), but Jodie Whittaker more than holds her own against him; even when Jessie's mood shifts feel more like narrative devices than like the moods of a real person, Whittaker pulls them off in convincing fashion. Leslie Phillips delivers Ian's dry, curmudgeonly grumbling with great style and flair, and gets many of the movie's biggest laughs.

The final act is a bit too predictable, and I wish we'd had more of Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice's estranged (but on friendly terms) wife. But those are minor quibbles; it's a marvelous movie, and O'Toole and Whittaker give us one of the year's most moving love stories.

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