Do I really have to urge you to see "Venus" when you can practically hear Peter O'Toole delivering one of the great limelight performances of all time from where you're sitting? This roistering, legendary star -- half artist, half peat-smoked ham -- hasn't had a real lead role since 1982's "My Favorite Year," so anything that puts him above the title deserves attention. Yet O'Toole does so much with the part of Maurice Russell, a fading London actor and proudly dirty old man, that you ache for 25 years of missed opportunities.
The film itself is a slight yet incisive character study, the sort of thing that would dissolve into whimsy if hands weren't steady all around. The writer, though, is Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette" and onward) and the director is Roger Michell ("Notting Hill"), and their hands are quite steady if not very subtle. The two collaborated last on "The Mother," an absorbing, upsetting 2003 drama about a 60 -something grandmother in love with a young man. "Venus" is a deceptively cheeky bookend to that film.
Maurice, when we meet him, is a frail working thespian in his 70s. He takes soap operas, commercials, whatever he can get, and has his daily morning crumpet with a longtime acting friend, Ian (Leslie Phillips). The two talk shop and tease each other about stage roles they played centuries ago in their youth.
Ian, who seems more decrepit than his compatriot, has hired a country grand-niece to come look after him. Her name is Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), and she's a horror: a gum-snapping, 22-year-old couch potato with the blank stare of a cow. Yet Maurice takes one look and falls head over heels, and "Venus" asks us to consider where geezer lust might overlap into something like mutual respect, even love.
Jessie is properly creeped out by this buzzard, but she's fascinated by him as well. Maurice pays attention to her, listens to her, and when he's not listening he talks at her with the plummy, oracular wit that has made him a lifelong stage star and world-class womanizer. It's a well-rehearsed seduction, his favorite role, and does it matter that it's pathetic if it's probably his last? (You're allowed to say yes.)
"Venus" is rollickingly funny at times -- a sequence in which the old reprobate talks Jessie into posing for his life-study art class ends with a moment of pure slapstick -- but there's an undercurrent of extraordinarily clear-eyed sadness. Maurice may pity himself but the movie is pitiless toward him while still managing to love him very much. The filmmakers and O'Toole are all attuned to the ick factor, and when Maurice hovers over his beloved's creamy shoulder, he's meant full well to seem vampiric. Also romantic, deluded, and human.
As the central relationship progresses, and as the hero moves from practiced smoothness to an old man's folly to a small sort of wisdom, we see him drop the acting and, at last, confront some of the damage he has left. Maurice has an ex-wife, a onetime actress named Valerie, played by an unrecognizable Vanessa Redgrave with the calm of a woman who has survived marriage to a beautiful, self-absorbed man. Children are mentioned but we never see them: Some burned bridges can't be rebuilt.
Redgrave does little and is intensely moving for it; likewise Phillips (a much-loved British movie veteran) tickles the heart with his cranky insistence on a well-cooked haddock. The scene in which he and O'Toole share a waltz at death's door (it's actually the Actors' Church, St. Paul's in Covent Garden, with its plaques to the likes of Boris Karloff and Noel Coward) can move you to simultaneous laughter and tears.
The unknown Whittaker holds her own in this company; watch her expression when Maurice describes to her the most beautiful thing a woman will ever see, and you'll realize in retrospect how strong her performance is. "Venus" is about old age, though, and O'Toole confronts every bit of pain and fear to be found there. On a technical level he's astounding -- step by step he conveys the character's failing body -- but the role is most affecting for what it says about a legend, an actor, and a man.
How close is Maurice Russell to the person playing him? It's immaterial and, at the same time, inextricable from the movie's pleasure and meaning. O'Toole offers lucid commentary here on the joys of art and flesh, perhaps on the grand fun he has had being Peter O'Toole, and, finally, on the colossal unfairness of the game coming to a close. When Maurice slaps himself in one scene, crying "old man!" in an impotent fury, the harsh, solitary truth of that moment rips through the movie's more cloying aspects (like Corinne Bailey Rae's cutesy jazzbo pop on the soundtrack). "Venus," bless its conflicted soul, gives a great actor the chance to rage against the dying of the spotlight.