He’s in his seventies. She’s in her twenties. Not exactly a match made in heaven. Yet Maurice and Jessie form the unlikely couple at the center of “Venus”, a British film directed by Roger Michell. This is not a feel good romance, nor a twisted tale of carnal obsession. The film exists somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, and its wavering is ultimately its weakness.
Maurice, played by screen legend Peter O’Toole, is an aging actor who is relegated to small parts in small movies, even playing a corpse in one scene. He meets regularly with his other elderly friends, including Ian (Leslie Phillips), who is suffering great pain and agony at the hands of his grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). Upon meeting her, Maurice is smitten, and they start to spend time with each other. Their friendship grows, but Maurice wishes that it could be something more.
The bulk of the film is a series of meetings between the two, and eventually Jessie’s youthful actions start to hurt Maurice, as he confides his feelings to his friend Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave). All the while, his friends feel alienated as he spends more and more time with Jessie, and their relationship takes twists and turns toward its inevitable conclusion.
The distinctive part of the film is, of course, the relationship between Maurice and Jessie. Indeed, it is a hard relationship to imagine, and the film has a hard time pinning down what exactly it entails. It is not an inspiring eccentric relationship, a la “Harold and Maude.” Maurice makes sexual references and clearly expresses such intentions. However, there is a platonic level of attraction, manifested in his nickname for her, “Venus.”
The film flips back and forth between the two levels of the relationship, and in some ways it reveals the complexity of such a pairing. However, the filmmaking style also switches back and forth, and this unevenness is frustrating. As Maurice’s life is interrupted by youthful bursts from Jessie, the quiet thoughtfulness is often interrupted by flashy camerawork or a loud sappy pop tune.
The movie’s strength lies in O’Toole’s performance. He is once again nominated at this year’s Academy Awards, and this is his eighth performance, having never won competitively. He did win an honorary Oscar last year, but almost refused it, saying he is still in the game and did not want to be out of the running for a competitive award. This movie proves that he’s still got it, bringing the right amount of pathos to a potentially disturbing role.
The other performances range in their quality. Redgrave is good as usual, as are Phillips and Richard Griffiths as Maurice’s friends. Whittaker has moments of inspiration, but at times she is a bit one-noted. As good as some may be though, it is O’Toole’s show, and the film’s focus does not waver in that regard.
The part of Maurice’s life depicted here is one of sadness with brief glimpses of humor. The characters are the same way, switching from kindness to cruelty. In order for the film to charm us, the film could have used more of the kindness. The cruelty makes a point, but it is not enough to make a profound connection.