To see the toll that time exacts, consider two images of Peter O'Toole.
First, imagine his debut performance in 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia," as he strides across the roof of a train. Sun-kissed, white-garbed and vigorous, he both conveys T.E. Lawrence as a messianic poet/warrior and anticipates his future career portraying larger-than-life personalities.
Then, look at him in his latest film, the melancholy comedy "Venus." At 74, O'Toole is a ghost of his former self. His eyes sunken and pale skin nearly translucent, his handsome features resemble a man-in-the-moon visage, on the verge of sinking into his ascot. Time has turned the matinee idol into a shadow.
It might seem a harsh judgement, but growing old is a harsh thing, and "Venus" doesn't stint from facing mortality. But it's hard to imagine this film, directed by Roger Michell ("Notting Hill," "Enduring Love"), being nearly as effective without an actor of O'Toole's renown in the central role. His presence, and our memories of his younger self, elevates a film that would otherwise be insubstantial despite its cleverness and sensitivity.
O'Toole's Maurice Russell and his obstreperous friend and colleague, Ian (Leslie Phillips), are veteran actors, and the film's early scenes reveal a deft sense of humor and spot-on timing as they squabble about each other's failing faculties. (Maurice was no movie star on O'Toole's level, but seems to have a career more comparable to Phillips, a longtime character actor probably best known these days as the voice of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies.) Ian none-too-subtly brags that his grand-niece Jessie is moving in, and he expects she will be a comely nursemaid and personal shopper. But when Maurice next visits, Ian is in a state of horror, describing Jessie in monstrous terms. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) turns out to be a pretty but crude young woman—sullen, slumping and unimpressed by the elderly.
Maurice quixotically becomes smitten with her despite her uncouth habits. They don't speak the same language—almost literally, given Maurice's thespian elocution and Jessie's thick slang: "You're finking about me chuffs and bumps! Fink about summat else!" Maurice nicknames her "Venus" after the goddess of love, and probably thinks of himself as Professor Henry Higgins in Shaw's "Pygmalion," bestowing sophistication on a coarse young woman. Outsiders such as Ian probably consider him more like Humbert Humbert lusting after Nabokov's underage Lolita. Jessie probably thinks of Maurice as something between a sugar daddy and part of the furniture.
Maurice's attentions fall between desire and longing, since prostrate trouble has rendered him impotent, although Jessie gradually permits some chaste touching. Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, author of "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" (1987), makes an effort to establish an ethos of transcendent pleasure. Maurice tells Jessie that most men will never see anything as beautiful as a woman's body, while for a woman, the most beautiful sight is that of her first child. But does the observation convey sensual wisdom, or just smooth patter to talk a woman out of her clothes?
Maurice's career reflects a morbid aspect of being an elderly actor. At one point, he lies dying in a hospital bed and we fear the worst, until we realize that he's just playing a soap-operatic scene on the job. Being frequently cast as dying characters while in one's twilight years must be a surreal experience, a constant dress rehearsal for the final curtain.
Being whittled down to life-size deepens O'Toole's craft in an unexpectedly new way. With his aristocratic bearing and ringing voice, he's played madmen, artists and kings. (The restored version of 1964's "Beckett," with his Oscar-nominated portrayal of Henry II, will be released in February.) Maurice may be one of the most "ordinary" men he's ever played, and though he can recite "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" with aching beauty, he fleshes out Maurice's more naturalistic qualities with surprising grace and realism.
And though O'Toole himself may be physically frail, he doesn't shy away from physical comedy. He gets Jessie a job as a nude model for an art class, but she refuses to allow him to watch, and when he tries to peek over the studio transom, he comes pratfalling into the room, knocking over easels like dominos.
With all its strengths, "Venus" nevertheless feels like a small story with an inconsistent tone. Some of the film's quirky moments have an artificial vibe, such as Maurice and Ian's impromptu waltz in a chapel. There's a particularly unsubtle moment when Maurice and Jessie ride a limo to a film location. The camera cuts between Jessie's top half sticking out the sun roof, enjoying the lush life like a prom date, and Maurice sitting beside her lower half, ogling her mini-skirted legs. At such moments, "Venus" evokes Steve Martin's quip: "I believe that you should place a woman on a pedestal, just high enough so you can look up her dress."
Crossroads Film Society presents "Venus" on Wednesday, May 16, at 7 p.m. in Hal and Mal's Big Room. Tickets $7, $5 for members. See crossroadsfilmsociety.com for more info. This piece originally ran in Atlanta's Creative Loafing.