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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

Venus

Peter OToole, along with poor Martin Scorsese, has the distinction of receiving eight Oscar nominations but never taking home the gold. This year O'Toole delivers the kind of career-capping performance that the Academy loves. He plays an aging actor in the new film Venus (opening January 26 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas).

Venus 1

Venus

Irish-born actor Peter OToole gained international attention for his riveting performance in the title role of Lawrence of Arabia back in 1962. Those piercing blue eyes, along with a larger than life performance, left a lasting impression on viewers. He would continue to win audiences and critics over with roles in B ecket, How to Steal a Million, The Ruling Class, The Stuntman among others .

In Venus , OToole plays Maurice, an aging British thespian who has achieved success but not widespread fame with his career. He has an ex-wife, Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave), with who hes still friendly even though he apparently abandoned her and his young children years ago for an on-the-set romance. Her continued compassion and affection for Maurice is a testament either to her saintliness or his ability to charm. Living on his own, Maurice gets an occasional acting jobincluding a deathbed scene on a soapy TV show. He also hangs out with his old chums Ian (a wonderfully cranky Leslie Phillips) and Don (Richard Griffiths). Their routine of reading the paper, drinking tea, complaining about life and squeezing in an occasional play are interrupted by the arrival of Leslies niece Jessica (Jodie Whittaker). Jessica eats all of Leslies food, drinks all his liquor and annoys him to no end. But Maurice takes a liking to the crash, self-centered young girl.

Maurice offers to take Jessica to the theater and to eat, in order to give Leslie a little peace and quiet. Maurice, who has a reputation as a womanizer, discovers that hes still interested in pursuing the opposite sex but at a slower, more casual pace. He rechristens her Venus and confesses his interest in her. Jessica initially rebuffs his advances but slowly the two develop a friendship.

Venus 2

Peter O'Toole stars in the new film Venus

Although he chooses to call her Venus, Eliza might be just as appropriate as Maurice is something of a Henry Higgins in the way he makes Jessica over and changes her from a kind of street urchin to lovely young woman. But the film doesnt really sell us on the romantic angle of the story. Written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell, the film is best at depicting the interactions of the three old colleagues than in the May-December romance. And actually calling it romance is misleading; its more about desire. Maurice has never been a man capable of loving another person if you define love as giving yourself up to another and making sacrifices for them. Hes desired woman and had passionate affairs but romantic love never seemed a part of those relationships.

Kureishi is a talented writer who has depicted complex relationship in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette and London Kills Me, but here he fails to make Maurice and Jessica completely believable. Maurice is made more pathetic than his personality should allow. Jessica acts erratically and her character arc is too big for this small picture. Kureishi and Michell seem more interested in the shock value of having OToole deliver an occasional explicit sexual line rather than in creating a film that tackles its subject in a fresh and believable manner.

But what does make the film a pleasure to watch is OToole. Although scenes may strain credibility, he never does. He makes us believe that Maurice could charm anyone he sets his sights on. But OToole suggests that Maurices charm is an odd mix of detachment and attentiveness. He focuses in on the person that he wants something from, makes them feel special but underlying the attentiveness is sense that ultimately he really doesnt need anyone. Its a kind of simultaneous pulling toward and pushing away. OToole makes Maurices last grasp at passion a poignant but not cloyingly sentimental tale. O'Toole knows how to work a scene and play to the camera, and its great that someone created a film to showcase his talents. But it would have been nice if everything else in the film were up to OTooles level.

Venus (rated R for language and sexual content) is well worth seeking out if only for OTooles performance.

Companion viewing: The Ruling Class, Becket (which will open February 16 at Landmarks Ken Cinema), Lawrence of Arabia, How to Steal a Million

Venus will be a part of the discussion when KPBS Radio's Film Club of the Air convenes Tuesday January 30 at 10:00 am. So call in with your comments or post them here.

BenP
January 29, 2007 at 01:33 AM
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Pamela Morgan
May 08, 2007 at 04:22 PM
How sad that these two greats would stoop so low, can they need money that badly,I feel we are in moral decay, they, the actors, and myself for sitting through this absolute piece of garbage instead of leaving and demanding my money to be returned...Yes they are superb actors and drew me in because of that.