Three years ago, director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi gave us a June-to-November romance in The Mother, with grandmother Anne Reid getting it on with her daughter’s hunky boyfriend, Daniel Craig. (Wonder what he thinks about that career move now that he’s playing Her Majesty’s most oversexed superspy...) In Venus, Michell and Kureishi have reversed the sexes and widened the age gap yet further in this tale of an elderly thesp who finds himself drawn to a provincial teenager. Despite being a meditation on infirmity, impotence and death, however, this is an altogether lighter, warmer film than its rueful companion piece.
Maurice (Peter O’Toole) is an ageing actor who, when not playing moribund patients in small-screen hospital series, exchanges rueful banter with his friend Ian (Leslie Phillips), a fellow ham who, if anything, is even more old and decrepit. When Ian’s grand-niece Jessie (beguiling newcomer Jodie Whittaker) comes to stay, Ian hopes she will provide some domestic TLC. Alas, she turns out to be a sullen northern chav who drives the old boy up the wall. To relieve his friend, Maurice takes the girl out – only to find the kind of stirring in his loins he hasn’t experienced since Ted Heath was PM.
It’s hard to believe that no one’s offered O’Toole a lead role for over 20 years. At 74 he’s lost none of his charm or screen presence, and the irrepressibly sexy grin makes him dream casting for randy old Maurice. The relationship with Jessie is inevitably platonic, though it’s clear that Maurice would willingly take it further if either she or his encroaching infirmities would permit. Whittaker, thrown in at the deep end with such a line-up of acting legends, more than holds her own in her big-screen debut, gradually letting a wary warmth show from behind her defensive scowl.
A couple of scenes of physical confrontation feel a tad contrived, while some of the humour will no doubt be best appreciated by old stagers living out their dotage in the Garrick. Despite this, Venus sweetly sustains its autumnal mood, deriving both comedy and poignancy from the numerous indignities of age. “There’s a stray chance of impotence and incontinence,” observes the surgeon booking Maurice in for a prostate op. “But you won’t be dead. That’s a result.” The most touching moment, though, comes when Maurice and Ian follow a boozy lunch at, yes, the Garrick with a wander into St Paul’s in Covent Garden, its walls lined with plaques to departed actors, and waltz gently together to the strains of a string quartet. It is the sound of growing old, gracefully.