Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.
Frequent readers of this blog will know that one of the things I take a stand on is the May/December romance situation that Hollywood seems to love. That situation is taken to an extreme with Venus, which presents us with a couple consisting of a 74-year-old Peter O’Toole and a 24-year-old Jodie Whittaker. On the surface, it’s unconscionable.
But, and this is important, Venus is a smarter film than that. The romance that we’re going to get here is far more theoretical than actual. There are still moments that come across as genuinely creepy, especially since O’Toole is playing older than his actual age. But, for the most part, there’s a sort of sweetness here because the romance isn’t really serious and, thanks to medical conditions, something that can’t be taken to fruition.
Maurice (O’Toole) is an aged actor who, as the film starts, learns that he doesn’t have a great deal of time left due to prostate cancer. His friend and fellow actor Ian (Leslie Phillips) is similarly aged and reaching the end of his life and career. Ian’s current news is that his grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) will soon be coming to help look after him. Ian is expecting something like live-in help, but Jessie is far different than what he would have wanted. She is messy, angry, and can’t cook. Despite this, Maurice takes an interest in her, something eventually encouraged by Ian in the hopes of getting her out of his hair.
What proceeds from here is something akin to a romance, although it isn’t quite one. Maurice, stricken with prostate cancer, is impotent and also more than three times Jessie’s age. For her part, the attention is something she finds both flattering and discomforting. Maurice is happy to buy her things, though, which helps maintain her interest. He also discovers that she has come to London to attempt a career in modelling. He gets her work as a nude artist model, both for his own prurient reasons and to further her career.
While it’s the relationship here that serves as a reason to be skeptical of the film in general, it’s the way that the relationship progresses that makes the film worth seeing. At first, it is almost literally the worst of what you expect it to be. It’s going to be a dirty old man and a young girl who is either too dumb to know she is being sexually exploited or crass enough to try to milk the situation as much as she can. It’s the second of these possibilities for some time, as Jessie clearly tries to manipulate Maurice as much as she can. Eventually, though, when the relationship has matured a little, it becomes much more about a sort of peculiar friendship that blossoms. Maurice is more or less infatuated with the idea of Jessie. He’s attracted to her youth in no small part because of the loss of his own.
This is a hell of a film debut for Jodie Whittaker, who manages to start the film as crass and annoying and end it as a character who has legitimately grown up during the course of the story. It’s very much O’Toole’s film, although he is ably assisted by a solid main cast. In addition to Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths plays another elderly acting friend and Vanessa Redgrave plays Maurice’s wife with whom he no longer lives but for whom he carries a certain affection despite his having destroyed their marriage with his own selfishness.
The name of the film is a reference to what Maurice nicknames Jessie early on. Within the story, it’s a reference to a painting that Maurice particularly likes, one that is called back to a few times during the course of the film. It’s another indication that Jessie, for all of her lower class sensibilities and habits, is viewed as an idea by Maurice and not a serious romantic possibility. In fact, it’s this realization that helps save the film.
I have to admit that there is a part of me that still objects to this a little because the romance, and all of the elements of it that are present, are supremely creepy. I know that Venus is intended to be as much a black comedy as it is anything else, but it’s still really disturbing for me to tihnkg about this sort of a relationship. I admit to being a little torn here on what to say about it. O’Toole holds the record for the most acting nominations without a win; Venus was his eighth and final nomination, and there’s a part of me that wonders if the nomination didn’t happen specifically because of his age.
I get that there is wit and humor here, but this kind of so-early-May-it’s-almost-April/so-late-December-it’s-almost-New-Year’s romance is genuinely upsetting in real ways for me. It just feels so damned unclean, even if the film does everything it can to subvert this as a traditional romance. I like the parts a lot more than the whole, and I think that’s how I have to leave it.
Why to watch Venus: Peter O’Toole was great, and Jodie Whittaker got her start here.
Why not to watch: It’s the May-est/December-est romance ever.