"I have no memories I'm prepared to share with you," Peter O'Toole once noted, possibly to some prying journalist.
What a giant fib! The countless memories this actor has already indelibly shared with us range from such classics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Becket (1964), Lord Jim (1965), and The Lion in Winter (1968) to My Favorite Year (1982) and The Last Emperor (1987).
One of Toole's more noteworthy, Oscar-nominated moments comes in 1972's The Ruling Class in which he portrays the certifiably daffy yet wise British aristocrat Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney. When asked about a point he has insisted upon, "How do you know you're God?" the good Earl responds, "Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself."
Immensely beautifulâ€”yes, handsome is too unassuming an adjective for O'Toole's prime daysâ€”with pale blue eyes and a face that was made to be blown up onto the screen, this Brit thespian of thespians has his own idols. In his memoir, Loitering with Intent, he praises Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Robert Hardy, Fay Compton, and Michael Hordern. But his highest acclaim goes to Marlon Brando: "In the film Julius Caesar, playing Mark Anthony, by God but that's a performance of a rare scale. Subtle or violent or still or cunning, immense energy pumps through every living moment he's on screen. Mighty.... An actor, Brando. A master."
The same acclaim can be stated, word for word, for O'Toole as Maurice, the wizened, dying actor in Venus, a solid directorial turn by Roger (Persuasion) Michell with a biting, wry screenplay by Hanif (My Beautiful Laundrette) Kureishi.
The septuagenarian Maurice, an performer of some achievement, now only gets a role here and there playing a corpse or, if luck has it, a bewigged historical figure in a costume drama. The preponderance of his days, though, is spent with his equally aging friends, especially the cranky Ian (the marvelous Leslie Phillips), who is more befeebled than he is.
But Maurice is not alone in worrying about Ian. Ian's relatives have sent his great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whitaker) to care for him. A for-once-joyful Ian expects this damsel in his house will wield grand changes in his life: Gourmet cooking for himself and an ability to share his boundless cultural knowledge with a budding, hungry mind.
Jessie, alas, is what some impolite folk might describe as common. Yes, the adequately attractive lass is an unwieldy, beer-guzzling, language-impaired post-teen who inexplicably dreams of being a model, a fantasy on par with Queen Elizabeth becoming a jockey.
While a traumatized Ian fulminates 24/7 against the uncouth distant relative he's saddled with, Maurice develops a passion for Jessie. He wants to be with her, buy her gifts, touch her, and smell her. A bemused, ambitious Jessie allows Maurice slowly to act out his "ridiculous" Lolita fantasies, but for a price.
Venus is obviously an oddball love story, but one that is not played for whimsical laughs like Harold and Maude. Kureishi, in all of his screenplays (e.g. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid; Intimacy), discerns the drollery along with the tragedy of everyday life. The winner in the end is always hope.
Yet what makes Venus unforgettable is not the fine direction and script, or Vanessa Redgrave's startling cameo as Maurice's long-suffering ex-wife, Valerie, or Whittaker's award-worthy debut, it's that the viewer cannot draw a line between O'Toole's career and Maurice's.
There's a moment when Valerie and Maurice watch a young Maurice/O'Toole on TV, noting how extraordinary he once looked. The Maurice/O'Toole confronting us is weather-beaten with little future ahead of him, yet the remnants of his former fineness are still in view. It's the duality of the situation that devastates and entertains. We, the audience, are seeing that the object of our desire has aged. That must mean we have, too. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "The Image of the Jew in Post-World War II European Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour and dozens of other publications.