Thursday, December 21, 2006

Venus - Movie Review

Venus 2006

The advance word on “Venus” was awash with praise and Oscar buzz for the central performance by the most nominated Actor in Oscar history – to have lost. Peter O’Toole has been an international film star and respected actor for over four decades since his first Best Actor nomination for the immortal “Lawrence of Arabia” way back in 1962. That ravishing epic went on to win seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, but sadly no Best Actor for the sparkling blue eyes of the obscenely pretty young O’Toole. (That honor would fall to Gregory Peck for his career capping turn in the equally famous “To Kill a Mockingbird”.)

From there, O’Toole dominated the 1960s with his fantastic performances, earning three more Best Actor noms before the end of that tumultuous decade. His two nominations for portraying King Henry II in “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter” were richly deserved. We’re still not sure about his brave attempt to ground the overblown and ridiculously unnecessary musical remake of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, but it landed him his fourth unsuccessful Oscar nod. Although, his then wife Siân Phillips almost saved the day with her deliciously droll comic turn as a demimondaine on acid. The seventies saw his truly brilliant performance in the mind blowingly hilarious black comedy “The Ruling Class”, which he should have won the Oscar for but lost to Marlon Brando’s comeback performance in “The Godfather”.

The Stunt Man” and “My Favorite Year” paid homage to the art of filmmaking and the heyday of television variety programs respectively and deservedly landed O’Toole his sixth and seventh nominations, thereby making him Oscar’s champion Best Actor Loser. Nice title, huh. And yes, we know that his fellow prankster from the 60s, Richard Burton also received a failed seven nominations, but honestly you mooks, his first one was for Best Supporting Actor, so that doesn’t count. Pay attention!

Now, some forty four years after “Lawrence of Arabia” and twenty four years after his last Oscar nomination, O’Toole returns to appear at the forefront of the shortlist for this year’s Best Actor prize. And he richly deserves it. “Venus” focuses on the twilight years of several stage veterans who are eking out there end of days as revered but little used character actors. O’Toole, Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths portray a trio of boisterous old thespians who meet regularly to trade pain killers, reminisce about their glory days and leer at youngsters.

Into their lives comes the grandniece of Leslie Phillips who has come to London to live as his caretaker, only to reveal herself to be a useless tart with little caretaking experience and even less self realization of her own particular talents. She dreams of being a model, whilst laying on the sofa watching bad telly and ingesting an inordinate number of crisps and beers.

When O’Toole as Maurice meets the young Jessie, his interest is instantly sparked. Jessie assumes the worst, that this lecherous septuagenarian means to paw her more than ample flesh in a last ditch attempt to recapture his conquests of yore. She is correct, to a point. What surprised us and Jessie, is the heart behind the erection of the character of Maurice.

Yes, he was famous once and obviously enjoyed the carnal pleasures of many a bird, but now in his withering state, he longs to hold onto his last shard of talent and fame and perhaps to enjoy the company of a pretty young bint in the process. For while some of the previews for “Venus” make it seem like a light hearted frolic amidst the denture grip set, it plays more like “Harold & Maude”. Which is a very good thing. Credit must go to screenwriter and novelist Hanif Kureishi who long ago proved his mettle with one of the great hidden gems of the mid 1980s – “My Beautiful Laundrette”.

Like that charming take on class and sexuality, “Venus” is a far more mature and penetrating look at the ravages of time than one would have guessed. Now, now – don’t be afraid, this is still at heart a comedy. For the very wonderful reason that the lead character of Maurice never quite takes himself too seriously. It is this jaundiced tone of self reflection that steers the film to success over any bumps and hurdles that might block its success.

As Maurice, Peter O’Toole richly deserves the accolades that have come showering down. Flirtatious, saucy, witty, lecherous to a fault and never short of the appropriate quote from a classic theatrical source or two – he is as brilliantly on top of his game and he ever was. When he allows the young Jessie to visit him on a film set to witness his craft, he is undone by his own crumbling body and almost collapses during a take. The lightning fast exchanges between Maurice and Jessie which signal her genuine fear for his well being and his resolute desire to impress this young girl allow him the strength and will power to avoid catastrophe and resume his work. It is a marvelous moment to behold, made near classic by the impeccable timing and heartfelt emotion that issues from Mr. O’Toole. We were prepared to throw him the Oscar then and there, and hope the Academy deems so as well.

As Jessie, the tart with a heart of brass – young Jodie Whittaker was spot on as the loose limbed and curiously reserved girl who holds all men at bay, especially her elders. Her instant dislike of her new employer and his friend Maurice is melted only insofar as it will afford her the luxury of a drink on the house or the promise of a chance at the limelight once she learns she has stumbled upon a bedraggled lot of once renowned actors. What could easily have been a shrewish performance is modulated perfectly throughout so we begin to see the same possibility that Maurice sees when he first spots Jessie.

As his partners in crime, stage and screen vets Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths slowly masticate the scenery without completely upstaging their leads. As if that could be possible with Peter O’Toole on hand in such grand form. It is left to the other actress of note in the piece to spar brilliantly with the great old man.

Oscar, Cannes Film Festival, Emmy, SAG, LA Film Critics, NY Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics (and yes, those horrid Globes thingy) winning acting goddessVanessa Redgrave delivers another of her finely crafted performances as Maurice’s estranged wife who depends greatly on his kindness and care to help her through her physically ailing end of days. In a rundown house filled with the remnants of her life and a stray cat or two, she glows upon seeing her former mate while taking great care to maintain what precious dignity she has left. Their scenes are filled with gloriously touching moments that only two such acting legends could provide.

We must pause to do something we thought we would never do. Honor the director of “Notting Hill”. (To be fair to Roger Michell, he also helmed the very fine “Changing Lanes” and “Enduring Love” which we adored, until the final scene – sigh. Go rent them now!) For the man responsible for one of Julia Roberts most entertainingly inane romantic comedies, has not let the script nor the talented cast down. He maintains a firm hand, perhaps a bit too theatrical at times – what else would we have expected – but he is to be commended in knowing full well that in the presence of such a talented cast, he would do best to give them room to glow. And glow they do. “Venus” will not change the coarse of cinema, nor end up on our Best of the Year list (coming soon!), but it was a very pleasant afternoon spent in the glory of a great actor or two doing what they do best. Entertaining the hell out of us, by making us believe in the transformative power of great acting. Bless you all!

Directed by Roger Michell
Written by Hanif Kureishi

Peter O’Toole as Maurice
Leslie Phillips as Ian
Jodie Whittaker as Jessie
Vanessa Redgrave as Valerie
Richard Griffiths as Donald

Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos
Film Editing by Nicholas Gaster
Original Music by David Arnold and Corinne Bailey Rae
Costume Design by Natalie Ward
Production Design by John Paul Kelly
Art Direction by Emma MacDevitt
Set Decoration by Sophie Phillips



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