Peter O'Toole has campaigned mightily for an Oscar win for Venus, and why shouldn't he? It's not just that it's his eighth nomination (not counting his honorary Oscar from 2003, which he accepted with no small amount of discomfort), or that he's now 74, more than four decades since his first nomination for Lawrence of Arabia. It's that, simply, the film's power relies heavily on the fact that it's Peter O'Toole in the role.
There are plenty of actors who could have played the role of Maurice, a faded matinee idol who gets a final wind from his infatuation with his friend's young grandniece Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker). But Venus works in large part because O'Toole's mere presence helps you relate to Maurice's history and battles with old age—it's not just a random old man getting a prostate exam, it's Lawrence of Arabia being jellyfingered.
O'Toole hasn't had a role this good since 1982's My Favorite Year, where his real-life history of flamboyance and drinking lent an air of self-parody to the Errol Flynn-esque Alec Swann, and he makes the most of it. Real photos from his younger days are used for his character, and when Maurice chats with his forgiving ex-wife—also an actor—played by fellow survivor Vanessa Redgrave, their reflections have a rueful, painful sense of reality.
Venus somtimes threatens to become Harold and Maude-meets-Pygmalion when dealing with Maurice's attraction to young Jessie, and the direction by Notting Hill's Roger Michell doesn't help—there's a dreadful slapstick bit with Maurice trying to spy on Jessie at a nude modeling gig, and several Corinne Bailey Rae numbers that blast on the soundtrack feel like they belong in another film. The script, by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), also has moments where it tries too hard—Maurice's impotence from prostate surgery feels like a contrived way of reassuring audiences that the old man wanting to see the young girl naked isn't a threat.
But it's a role tailor-made for O'Toole, and the moments that work feel perfectly observed. Most of O'Toole's best parts involve death—T.E. Lawrence is dead from the first moments of Lawrence of Arabia, and there's the "I hope we never die" scene in 1968's The Lion in Winter. One scene in Venus recalls the scene in 1980's The Stunt Man where his character is asked what he'd do if he knew he was about to die. "I'd dance," he replies.
There's also a scene in Venus where O'Toole and Leslie Phillips are in St. Paul's, and they're tracing their fingers over the plaques of other actors such as Robert Shaw and Laurence Harvey. As musicians begin to play in the background, they teasingly begin to dance with one another. You can't help but be reminded of that line in The Stunt Man, and that this film is about the end of the O'Toole character's life, and that O'Toole himself does not have much time left. And it resonates.
Years ago, I saw O'Toole on a talk show joking that the way he stayed healthy was running around the graves of friends who told him to exercise. In Venus, you get the sense that the number of graves has gotten larger and larger, and he's almost out of breath. But somehow, he keeps running.
Venus opens Friday in select theaters.