dir: Roger Michell
[img_assist|nid=796|title=Jeez, just let the poor old bastard die|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=350|height=225]
It may be based on something written by Hanif Kureishi, but you have to wonder whether Peter O’Toole played a role in writing his own eventual eulogy before the fact (he’s still alive as of Sept 2007).
Much to most people’s surprise, especially considering his notorious womanising and boozing escapades many decades ago, O’Toole is still alive and acting. Despite looking like a Madame Tussaud’s wax sculpture of himself, despite looking like the Grim Reaper accidentally forgot to mark him off the reaping list, and will get around to him quite soon, he’s still kicking and screaming. And, if this flick is to be believed, aching for some pussy.
How crude, eh? It’s not the kind of language my loyal readers have come to expect and demand from me, eh? Sure, a bit of swearing is par for the course, but not gutter-talk like that. Right?
Well, if you’ve seen Venus, you’ll actually think what I wrote was accurate and appropriate. And positively tame in comparison.
Maurice Russell (Peter O’Toole) is a cinematic legend reduced to playing corpses on television programs in order to earn enough scratch to keep himself in soup and whiskey for the week. Practically no-one recognises him, and his only friends are similarly superannuated thespians of a bygone era. One of his buddies, Ian (Leslie Phillips), is excited about the prospect of his niece’s daughter’s arrival on the scene as his personal slave/nurse/caretaker. He practically trembles with excitement over the prospect of all the chores she’ll dutifully carry out, and all the rationing and bomb shelter circa WWII stories he’ll get to dazzle her with.
When she arrives in London, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is, of course, a sullen little scrubber with no desire to hang out with old men, but with few prospects in her home town up north. So she stays and sulks (and drinks whenever she can) making Ian’s life a living hell.
Maurice, on the other hand, is utterly enchanted by her. Make no mistake, he does not fall in love with a young beauty; he isn’t enraptured by her because she is the spitting image of some nurse he met during the Crimean War. She is a homely chav slag. But she is young.
She exudes youth and, for Maurice, femininity and sex from every pore. He behaves mostly with benevolent condescension towards her, but more often than not he is a leering, grabby dirty old man. And what a dirty, dirty old man O’Toole manages to be.
There is something simultaneously discomfiting and admirable about The Toole willingly playing such a letch in what will invariably be one of the last roles he will be remembered for. He even cracked it for an (unsuccessful) Oscar nomination.
Why, I’m not sure. The Toole has long been adored by audiences for his icy blue eyes and his chronic overacting, but the old biddies and codgers who remember his highlights would most likely be disgusted by the craven figure he portrays here.
Lord knows I was.
But it’s appropriate, I guess. That’s the role as written and played, and boy does he play it to the hilt. I guess it’s not much of a stretch for The Toole to play a decrepit old sleaze at death’s door. But I have to admit that I derive a lot of pleasure from watching the old ham go through his paces.
At the end of his life, Maurice doesn’t have a lot to be proud of. His career achievements are all in the past, he lives hand-to-mouth, he is estranged from his wife and his kids are not a part of his life at all, never having forgiven him for abandoning them many decades before.
To add insult to injury, he’s also impotent, so all his desperate, ancient pawings and dribblings at Jessie aren’t about the prospect of actually getting any sex. He wants her in a way he can never achieve, but are we meant to see it as more than sexual, as being more the last desperate attempts to drink the dregs of life, to cling to living and breathing for just a little while longer?
I don’t know, which is okay. It’s left up to us to decide why he does what he does, and why Jessie simultaneously fends him off and humours him at the same time. It’s not a ‘financial’ arrangement alone either.
Theirs is not a May-December romance; it’s not Harold and Maude in gender reverse. It’s not a romance by any stretch. But it is a relationship of sorts based on need. Perhaps she is flattered by his lustful hunger whilst being repulsed by it at the same time, maybe she wants some of his companionship, despite entering into a relationship with a thug moron her own age. And on Maurice’s end, she’s far more than just a spotty scrag he wants to grope: he calls her Venus after the nude painting of the goddess, of which there are countless. Jessie is the eternal feminine, the one pure desire he ever experienced regardless of how it would wane. And maybe she’s even his desire for the return to the womb that Death can be seen as.
It is because of this set-up that we are led to scenes such as Maurice explaining to Jessie that, for men, a woman’s body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see. When she asks him what the most beautiful sight a woman can look forward to, he gives the answer of her first child.
It’s only a film like this where you’d have a scene where, as a gift or bribe, Jess offers a taste of herself to Maurice, and then has to fight him off when he literally tries to drink it in. When Jess tries to revive a recuperating Maurice by showing him her young breasts, in any other film it would be a crass or comedic moment, but here it is remarkably poignant.
Theirs is not a relationship that will last, because Maurice is not long for the world, and has almost nothing to offer her bar his constant attention, and she’s a selfish slapper. But she has some concern for him, which leads to an unexpected but not unbelievable ending. The film begins and ends with the image of a beach with significance to Maurice that comes through in the end, and probably represents that Jessie can even be a stand in for his own mother. But what do I know: Freud to me is something you get sent to jail for when you defreud people of their money (and their childhoods).
It’s not a film for everyone, and, even for a depraved soul like me, it makes for uncomfortable viewing sometimes. But it’s certainly a worthy flick to have at the end of your resume.
Damn, O’Toole, like the waitress says, you were beautiful.
7 times those cold, imperious blue eyes of O’Toole’s used to be able to make women’s gussets rustle from a thousand paces of 10
I'm impotent, of course.
- Thank Christ.
But I can still take a theoretical interest - Venus