In Which Everything Old Is New Again
You’ve probably heard more about Venus than its limited, under-the-radar release would seem to have warranted. It’s the movie that earned star Peter O’Toole his eighth Academy Award nomination. It’s the movie about a May-December romance between a dirty old man and a tough twentysomething chick. It’s a celebration of old age; it’s a vindication of spunky youth; it’s this; it’s that.
What you probably haven’t heard, except in the subtext of all the many very positive reviews the film has garnered — it’s at 88 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes — is that what Venus is most notable for being is a big F.U. to Hollywood, a defiant raspberry, a jabbing middle finger… or perhaps one of those rude backward V signs, given that this is a British film. Because just with its mere existence as a film worth seeing, as a triumph of craft, it puts to rest that notion that the reason studio films are mostly terrible these days is because the industry is creatively bankrupt, totally out of original ideas — which is true enough, and bad enough, of course. Instead, it demonstrates that, in fact, Hollywood is all but bereft of genuine talent. It’s not that the lack of new ideas in circulation is hobbling all those poor actors and directors and writers, forcing them to make do with recycled material that no one could possibly work with, and that with the right material they could really show their stuff. It’s that they don’t have the stuff to do anything in the first place.
Cuz look: Venus is nothing new. It is, no pun intended, antediluvian. The oldster on the final lap of life gets rejuvenated by a pretty young thing. The youngster gets tutored in the ways of being a grownup — you know, like appreciating the theater and carrying herself like a woman — from her sophisticated suitor. It’s Lolita meets My Fair Lady with a dash of Golden Girls elderhood-can-be-fun cheer thrown in. It’s every unbearable instance of made-for-TV Christmas schmaltz and Very Special Episode slop. It is in all totality absolutely nothing you haven’t seen before.
And yet it’s fresh and warm and human and angry and bitter and vulgar and earthy and funny and frank. Peter O’Toole (Casanova, Troy) so completely throws himself into the role of Maurice, formerly a famous actor and now just treading water till life runs out, that the only response is to suspect that he is letting us see the real man behind the actorly mask, that he cut open a vein and is letting his artistic life’s blood flow… or else that he can fake that raw authenticity so well that the effect is the same. This is no sparkly caricature about a dapper gent with a spring in his creaky step — this is a portrait of regrets and survival and the betrayal of our bodies as we age and if it is O’Toole showing us his true self, he is daring enough not to force it to be phony and flattering. There are moments when you want to look away and leave the man his dignity.
But that is not on the agenda for screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Titanic Town): they court crossing all sorts of lines with every turn of the simple plot, as Maurice befriends cranky, lively Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker, a real spitfire). Young but not naive, and fully aware of Maurice’s particular interest in her, she is no fool, no one to be taken advantage of, which eliminates the potential ick factor of her complicated relationship with Maurice. In a story that could have been about, as these kinds of stories typically are, Woman as a distant, remote ideal, a rarefied concept that serves the purposes of men, this one woman brings it all back down to reality, turns that artistic male gaze around with a cocked eyebrow, an utter disdain for such nonsense.
And it is all that daring, all that unexpectedness, all that novel take on an old, old tale and makes it worth seeing again, and makes it feel like you’re seeing it for the first time.