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Peter O'Toole could gargle mouthwash and it would give an audience chills. He could slurp up spaghetti and it would make for riveting entertainment. He could appear in one of those GEICO auto insurance commercials and it would be an artistic triumph of tears and laughter.
In short, the guy is amazing. Some actors simply have that indefinable presence, an appeal that transcends charm and talent. It helps, of course, that T.E. Lawrence -- er, O'Toole, I mean -- has plenty of both, but, perhaps more important, he possesses that seemingly magical ability to command our attention and awe.
At age 74, Peter O'Toole has still got it. He deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination for his work in Venus, where he plays a famed, aging London thespian who strikes up a curious relationship with the teenaged niece of one of his longtime friends.
Maurice Russell (O'Toole) is intrigued when his fastidious chum Ian (Leslie Phillips) gets a new houseguest. Ian thinks he is getting a live-in caregiver with the arrival of Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), his 17-year-old niece. But she is no Florence Nightingale. Jessie is brash, curt and more than a little boorish. She prefers to park herself in front of the telly and eat. She drinks heavily, has no appreciation for the theater and certainly doesn't know how to properly prepare fish -- much to the despair of her fussy uncle.
The girl fascinates Maurice, an old lech whose philandering ended his marriage decades earlier. He accompanies Jessie to the theater and a bar one night, kicking off a strangely intimate understanding between the two. While Maurice clearly has the hots for the girl, no sex is involved. He has been rendered impotent after prostate surgery, although he confesses to still having "a theoretical interest" in the act. Their relationship is more complex. Maurice relishes the female companionship -- even if it's compromised by the fact that Jessie, whom he nicknames "Venus," largely humors his salacious impulses.
Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) and writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) demonstrate a real insight into people and their often messy patchwork of motivations and insecurities. In one quick scene, Maurice sits up in bed and slaps himself hard. "Old man!" he admonishes himself. It is a seemingly throwaway moment, but it contributes greatly to our understanding of this man who has not yet come to terms with his approaching death.
In less capable hands, the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Venus' characters easily could have smacked of pretentiousness. It is a testament to the film's artistry that the various interactions -- between Maurice and Jessie, between Maurice and his ex-wife, Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave) -- ring with authenticity.
Venus does not settle for simplistic truths. Maurice is in love with Jessie, but what he needs from her extends well beyond sex. Similarly, her callousness to him is not solely a matter of cruelty. Both Maurice and Jessie are simultaneously selfish and solicitous. They are not particularly nice people, but their foibles make them all the more sympathetic.
Despite the movie's thematic exploration of death and dying, it also happens to be wryly funny. Maurice is subjected to the various indignities of old age. A doctor checks his prostate. He and Ian feast on a breakfast of medication. Maurice sustains his acting career by being typecast as the dying man. Venus mines the grim humor of these situations without resorting to cruelty.
Acting is paramount in a film of this sort, and Venus does not disappoint. O'Toole is extraordinary. With that inimitable voice and a shock of long grey hair hanging over his glittering eyes, he hits small, but graceful, notes. The screen legend is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, with Leslie Phillips amusing as Ian and Vanessa Redgrave wonderful as Maurice's long-suffering ex-wife. Last but certainly not least is Whittaker. In her feature-film debut, the young actress more than holds her own among the venerated old pros.The DVD
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the image quality is excellent -- magnificent detail, vivid colors, with realistic skin tones and inky blacks. No noticeable problems with grain or artifacts. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1.The Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is first-rate and immersive, although the mix can be a little erratic. Dialogue in a few spots is nearly swallowed up by ambient sound. There are English subtitles for the hearing-impaired.Extras:
In a markedly subdued commentary, director Michell and producer Kevin Loader offer plenty of information about the filmmaking process. But be forewarned: The commentators often speak in hushed tones. You might need an espresso to stay awake.
Venus: A Real Work of Art is a 13-minute, 48-second featurette boasting interviews with cast and crew. It's fairly standard stuff, but includes an interesting clip of Whittaker's audition. Four deleted scenes, none of which are consequential, have an aggregate running time of four minutes, six seconds.
The disc also has sneak peeks of Ratatouille, Renaissance, The Lookout and The Queen.Final Thoughts:
Jodie Whittaker, Vanessa Redgrave and Leslie Phillips all turn in accomplished performances, but Venus is Peter O'Toole's movie all the way. Like the filmmakers, the screen legend achieves a sublime balance between poignancy and humor.