Peter O’Toole has been making movies since John F. Kennedy resided in the White House and before the Beatles first jammed on The Ed Sullivan Show. He’s appeared in a handful of films hailed as the best of all time, including The Lion In Winter and Lawrence Of Arabia, and his matinee idol looks made him prime fantasy material for women on every continent. There’s very little that the 74-year-old actor hasn’t done up to this point in his career, except for the obvious: win an Oscar.
Venus is his latest, and possibly last, attempt at changing the tides. And while it would be great to say the movie is every bit as amazing as his performance, which has earned him his eighth Oscar nomination, that simply is not the case. Venus is a decent enough experience with good performances across the board, but something feels incomplete and unsatisfying about it, like it exists mainly as a last-ditch effort to push O’Toole toward the podium.
The aging veteran stars as Maurice, a “semi-famous” actor with a fondness for hitting the pubs, eyeing the ladies and chewing the fat with his friends Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffiths). He’s a quick-witted character, always ready to poke fun at himself before passing it along, but his sensitive eyes reflect a hidden depth. When he first spots Jessie (Jodie Whittaker in her feature debut), Ian’s relative sent over to help him as a nurse, he is instantly smitten. Where everyone else sees an annoying, ungrateful 19-year-old brat, he sees potential and beauty. Often to inappropriate degrees.
Venus mainly revolves around their friendship, although it’s clear that Maurice, even with an impotence problem, is longing for more. Thankfully, the film never really goes there—although there are a few scenes that cross the line just enough to make you cock an eyebrow. What’s admirable about Venus is that it displays deeply flawed characters who often behave in ways that don’t warrant any applause. What’s not as admirable is that it taps into greatness without ever fully extracting it.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Enduring Love) is no stranger to movies about imperfect people doing imperfect things, but this is one of his more uneven efforts. The script, written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), starts off as a light, cheeky comedy, and then slowly morphs into something almost too depressing to bear. Witnessing the film head in a sullen direction is not the main problem, though—it’s that it never digs into its emotional core before taking us on the journey. My tears have to be earned; they can’t just be ordered.
O’Toole really is terrific in Venus, partly aided by a cast that gives him a lot to work with. The few scenes he shares with Vanessa Redgrave, as the wife he abandoned once upon a time, provide some of the film’s most touching moments. Whittaker, who would have made a perfect Lolita, adds a youthful playfulness to the mix, and her fits of teenage angst keep things interesting. But beyond the surface, who exactly are all these people, and why are they worthy of our company? This question is never answered, which prevents Venus from ever living up to its passionate title.