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VENUS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Peter O'Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips, Vanessa Redgrave
Director: Roger Michell
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Miramax
Features: Commentary, deleted scenes, Venus: A Real Work of Art featurette, trailers
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: May 22, 2007

"I am about to die, and I know nothing about myself."

Film *** ˝

What thoughts drift through the mind of a man when he realizes that he is dying?  Does he muse over the milestones of his life, or does he ponder the bitterness of a lifetime's accumulation of disappointments and regrets?  Does he defy his inevitable mortality for a few more moments of glory, or will he be content merely to fade away like a cool shadow to the new dawn?  Is one's final passing better shared in the presence of a beloved companion, or is it a private affair best reserved for the quiet dignity of solitude?

Maurice Russell (Peter O'Toole) is an aging thespian in the twilight of an illustrious career.  Once a handsome and famous stage actor, now the frail actor seems better suited to portraying dying fathers or would-be corpses.  He has even succumbed to the universal banes of old age for all men - prostate indignities, incontinence, and impotence.  The irony of his situation does not escape him, but rather than dwell incessantly upon a fate that no man ultimately may escape, Maurice accepts his lot in life with droll amusement.

Together with his best friend, Ian (Leslie Phillips), Maurice finds as much pleasure in reminiscing over past triumphs as in bartering and trading medications for kicks.  Maurice views the long days with sarcasm and witty humor, noting with off-handed sighs the regular passing mentions of old friends in newspaper obituaries.  However, Maurice's carefree days of generally indifferent activity are about to change.

Ian is getting on in years, and his niece has decided to send her daughter to stay at his London flat to tend to his health for a while.  The girl's name is Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), and she turns out to be a foul-mouthed, ill-cultured girl with confused aspirations.  Jessie lacks discipline and commitment.  She smokes too much.  She soaks up alcohol like a dried sponge.  She is a lousy cook.  Her fashion attire is unflatteringly mangy.  She argues with her grand-uncle incessantly and proves herself to be quite unsuitable for the role of a convalescing old man's home nurse.  Ian soon grows petrified of this maliciously maladroit minx who has somehow washed up upon his doorsteps much like discarded detritus.  Urgently, he recruits his friend Maurice to pre-occupy his grandniece somehow.

Considering himself a scientist of the female heart, Maurice accepts this commission of compassion but soon finds himself fascinated by this capricious character who has entered into his otherwise forlorn life.  An unlikely May-December relationship develops between Jessie and Maurice.  Jessie initially ignores Maurice's presence, eventually learns to tolerate him, and then surprisingly, begins to regard Maurice as not just a tired old man but rather as a kindly soul who is more a true friend to her than any of the random boys she might encounter about London's rave clubs.  While Jessie occasionally takes advantage of Maurice's friendship, she soon learns to value his company, despite Maurice's myriad faults.

True, perhaps Maurice is a bit too cranky at times.  And perhaps his affection for Jessie, whom he nicknames "Venus" after being inspired by museum paintings, borders on flagrant infatuation.  However, Maurice is attentive, knowledgeable, and always frank; his old age permits him little time to be otherwise.  He offers Jessie the guiding light by which to straighten out her life, and she in turn, with her presence, offers him the elixir of youth and beauty, that even in old age a man might feel not so very alone, not quite so forgotten.

Venus is a bit like a modern-day Limelight, wherein an old stage actor passes along his strength to his young protégé.  Like that film, Venus intermingles bittersweet melancholy with touching moments of comedy.  And also like that film, Venus depends upon a stellar cast of veteran stars.  Chief among them is certainly Peter O'Toole, who remains an actor with few equals among his contemporaries or even modern actors.  As Maurice, O'Toole embodies the weariness and reflective rationalization of old age in an Oscar-worthy performance.  Former stage actor Leslie Phillips is quite good as well as Maurice's friend Ian, as is Vanessa Redgrave (despite very limited screen time) as Maurice's long-suffering ex-wife.  And Jodie Whittaker, as Jessie, delivers the keystone performance that holds the entire film together.

Venus may not be a film for everyone, and its story explores little new territory that has not already been touched upon in such similarly-themed, recent films as Lost in Translation or Shopgirl.  However, Venus is a fine romance which does offer the incomparable Peter O'Toole in his finest performance in years.  Plus, newcomer Jodie Whittaker truly shines in what we should hope is just the first of many fine performances to come.

Video ****

Venus looks quite good.  The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen format.  Colors are lush with an occasional painterly quality to them.  Details are crisp and distinct, and the casual feel of the smaller, lesser-traveled London streets is captured and reproduced here quite vividly.

Audio *** ˝

Venus is generally a dialogue-driven film, although its mood is well-complemented by a gentle, poignant ambiance.  This soundtrack, presented in English 5.1 digital surround, is not too aggressive but suits the film's overall tone.

Features **

This disc opens with trailers for the amnesiac film The Lookout, the Sin City-like animated film Renaissance, The Queen with Oscar winner Helen Mirren, and Pixar's Ratatouille.  This haphazard selection of trailers seems to have been assembled with little consideration regarding the general target audience that would actually watch Venus.

Among the bonus features is a pedestrian commentary track by director Roger Michell and producer Kevin Loader in which both men seem basically content to react sporadically to the film.

There are four extraneous deleted scenes (4 min.) involving sequences in a hospital, at a film set, along the streets of London, and in a rail depot.

The featurette Venus: A Real Work of Art (14 min.) is a standard promotional piece containing interviews with the writer, director, and cast, particularly Peter O'Toole and Jodie Whittaker.

Summary:

Featuring truly resonating performances by Peter O'Toole and promising newcomer Jodie Whittaker, Venus is a bittersweet British comedy with a twist of Grumpy Old Men and Lost in Translation.

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