Roger Michell’s 2006 film Venus could very easily have been your typical May-December romance/coming of age story, but fortunately it isn’t, largely thanks not only to an inspired performance by the always fascinating Peter O’Toole, but a much surprising turn by Jodie Whittaker as the young object of his affection – actually, that affection is accompanied by a healthy dose of lust – Jessie.
When we first meet Jessie, she has come to take care of her great-uncle Ian (Leslie Phillips). Ian introduces her to his best friend O’Toole’s Maurice (pronounced as though spelled Morris) Russell, an aging actor, who is dying of prostate cancer. Though Ian at best tolerates her, calling her a trouble maker and a nuisance who can’t even seem to fix his tea properly, Maurice is immediately attracted by the brash young girl, whom he seems to find both alluring and fascinating.
Though she is initially as shy and disaffected around Maurice as she is towards her great uncle, he begins to charm her, since he appears to be the only person she knows who is willing to accept her as she is, and to treat her in a non-judgmental way that it seems no one in her actual family is able or willing to do. Soon they have struck up something of a friendship, though there is also a constant prickliness to their relationship, due both to the mistrust that Jessie seems to have towards everyone and Maurice’s tendency to push the boundaries of their relationship whenever he is given the opportunity.
It’s not long before Jessie is actually spending more time with Maurice than with Ian, and during one of their outings, he takes her to see his favorite painting, Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Ian also encourages Jessie, who has stated that she wants to be a model to pose nude for an arts class, though one suspects – since he is a participant in the class – that his real motive in doing so is to be able to study the young girl’s body which he eventually admits that he has been fantasizing about.
Eventually, as can only be expected in this kind of film, the two become closer, and though Jessie does begin to allow Maurice more and more leeway toward her both physically and emotionally, she also never hesitates to draw back from him or to shoot him down when he begins to cross the line into what she considers to be inappropriate behavior toward her. Maurice also finds himself changing and becoming even more accepting of the young girl’s way of life, even as he tries to help her see that there may be more to hers, and the two both bring new ideas and experiences to the other.
Unfortunately, things eventually come to a head when Jessie brings her new young lover to Maurice’s flat, seeking a place where they can make love together. Though he initially complies and begins to take a walk to give the two time to be together, he soon decides that he cannot abide it, and returns to confront the two. This leads to a physical confrontation which leaves Maurice gravely injured.
I mentioned at the start that O’Toole’s performance as Maurice is as inspired as any that he has undertaken and that is borne out by the fact that it earned him his eighth Best Actor Academy Award nomination. No, it does not have the showmanship and bluster of his earlier roles, but that’s obviously not what is called for here. Instead his performance holds the dignity of his age, even though the character he is playing at times does not. It’s obvious that O’Toole is having fun here, and that makes it easy for the viewer to do so also.
The person who really deserves more credit here though is Jodie Whittaker who truly steals not just Maurice’s heart, but the entire film. Whittaker brings to the role of Josie just the right blend of brokenness and brashness that takes her character far beyond the cardboard cutout that one might expect. Obviously, simply having to share the screen with a legend like O’Toole brings an inherent challenge for any actor in that they are likely to simply be overshadowed by the mere presence of the actor, but that never happens. Instead her portrayal is strong enough that there is no question at all why Maurice is drawn to her and is willing to go to the lengths he does just to spend more time with her.
In the end, Venus earns a very high recommendation from me. I’ll especially commend it to those of you who happened to see the recent Robert Di Nero/Anne Hathaway movie The Intern and either enjoyed that or found it just a bit too sweet and unrealistic. This is definitely a movie that I’d place into the “hidden gem” category and deserves to be discovered by more people.