Venus

 

(R) Four stars

In 2003, Peter O’Toole accepted an honorary Academy Award with reluctance, stating that he was “still in the game.” Yesterday, the 74-year-old leading man was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his outstanding performance in Venus.

Still in the game.

Acclaimed for a body of work including the landmark David Lean epic, Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, Lord Jim, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year, O’Toole is nearly as well-known for his outrageous late-night carousing with Richard Burton and other A-list Brit actors.

O’Toole is old now and he looks it. But it only takes a glimpse at the sly turn of his smile and those remarkable eyes to see the adventurer, the romancer, the troublemaker within. Elegant and absurd, he is a wonder to behold in Venus.

The British film, which pairs director Roger Mitchell and writer Hanif Kureishi for the third time, is a small work made bigger by its cast. Funny, sad, bracing and rude, it deals with sensitive issues without succumbing to sentimentality.

O’Toole plays Maurice Russell, an aged London-based actor who is basically a scaled-down version of Peter O’Toole. Maurice is “a little bit famous” and he still works, though that work sometimes consists of playing stiffs on soap operas. In his off hours, he hangs out with other old actors, talking about health, swapping anecdotes, teasing each other with little mercy and swearing floridly.

Maurice’s life takes a turn when his ailing friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) announces that his 19-year-old grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is coming to take care of him. Ian envisions an attentive young angel floating around his flat dispensing good will and great soup — what he gets is a sullen girl with a lower-class accent and no discernable sense of style.

What Maurice sees is Venus. Despite their massive age difference and his prostate difficulties, he uses every excuse he can think of to ingratiate himself with the young woman. Jessie figures him out straightaway and works his desires to her benefit, while still keeping the old fart at arm’s length.

It all would be terribly sad if only one of them was preying on the other, but both parties are exploitative, and watching them in action is fascinating. Jodie Whittaker is rock solid as Jessie, while O’Toole works his magic in the best leading role he’s had since the ’80s. Other actors might have played down the more lecherous side of Maurice, but O’Toole plays it boldly, leering on a world-class scale. Also enjoyable are Maurice’s visits with his ex-wife Valerie, grandly portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave. The scenes between the two are some of the finest in the film.

As should come as no surprise, mortality is a near-constant presence in Venus, waiting in the wings for the right time to close the curtain. The script handles the subject unflincingly, but without harshness. Death is what it is and in the meantime, watch how Maurice lives.

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