Merchant of 'Venus'

Peter O’Toole chews the scenery in pursuit of Jodie Whittaker’s disaffected young thing in Venus. Courtesy photo.
Dir. Roger Michell; writ. Hanif Kureishi; feat. Peter O’Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker, Richard Griffiths, Vanessa Redgrave (R)
It’s a shame that the marketing team tasked with drawing viewers to Venus chose the photo they did for the movie poster: a harshly-lit headshot of Peter O’Toole, foppish in ascot, mummified in skin tone, and wearing such a bewildered gaze he more closely resembles a great-grandmother suffering from dementia than the man who once took Arabia by storm.

Better would be a high-tech ad, like the ones in Minority Report, that could catch you on the sidewalk and force-feed you a clip from one of the most pander-free charismatic screen performances ever given by an actor in his 70s.

Not that the wry, slow-moving charms of Venus are particularly well-suited to sound-bite advertising. They also aren’t particularly well championed by Mr. O’Toole’s recent visits to late-night talk shows, where he tried valiantly (but failed) to interact in an environment too flighty for a chap whose personal speedometer is now set to “autumnal legend” rather than “quicksilver charmer.”

But that’s all spilled whiskey at this point, and it falls to critics to convince movie-goers that the star around whom Venus revolves has a serious gravitational pull. Though the film has much to do with its characters’ (and, inevitably, its leading man’s) mortality, O’Toole’s performance offers more life than a dozen star turns by actors half his age.

He plays, not coincidentally, a well-known English actor whose gigs these days involve a whole lot of deathbed scenes. Away from the cameras, O’Toole’s Maurice hangs around with fellow actor Ian, who has just gotten what he thinks is good news: A teenaged great-niece, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), is about to move to town to cook and clean for him in exchange for a free room.

It turns out that Jessie’s idea of cuisine runs more to devouring bags of chips on the couch, and that she can’t be bothered with chores. Possibly worse, the sullen child has zero curiosity about the city or these worldy men who could introduce her to it. Where Ian retreats in disgust, though, Maurice willfully ignores the girl’s actual personality, instead treating Jessie like the graceful beauty he wants her to be.

The strange quasi-courtship that follows amplifies the sexual longing inherent in My Fair Lady and adds a vast age disparity to make things ickier. Maurice pushes his luck with Jessie, who wavers between taking advantage of his generosity and genuinely seeming to enjoy his company. We assume she’ll eventually warm up to the old lecher, but there’s a good chance she’ll break his heart (or he’ll be arrested) first.

Whether O’Toole is truly at death’s door or not, he plays this role like his last, balancing every wicked spark with a fond but nearly unsentimental glance to the past. The script is adulatory to the actor because it gives him a worthy, challenging character to play, which is, in the end, a greater gift than flattery itself: This role shows any doubters that O’Toole is still very much in the game.

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