Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Peter O'Toole in Venus

I've had Venus sitting on my dvd hard drive for a while now, before finally getting round to watching it. Strangely enough, it turned out to be pretty much exactly what I expected. It confirmed my initial instincts which were a) to want to see the film, but b) to not go out of my way to catch it.

Starting with the positive, the triumvirate of Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths is not to be sniffed at. I'll watch O'Toole in anything, he is just magnificent. It was also nice to see Leslie Phillips playing a sweet old man for a change, rather than a lecherous cad. That role, of course, went to O'Toole in this film. Griffiths is always good, but especially as a character reminiscent of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. The problem was that they were just not on screen enough. The scenes at the coffee shop, with the three of them together, were the best moments of the whole film. The rest of it, well, it was mostly quite vile.

O'Toole's Maurice inexplicably falls under the spell of his friend's brash young niece Jessie. Goodness knows why, she's horrible. I always hate it when you have to believe something just because it's in the script, but there's no other explanation as to why Maurice falls for Jessie. He has to. It's in the script. Straight away, we've been booted out of the realms of believability and into a world where everything that happens on screen happens because somebody wrote it. That means the person to blame for Venus is Hanif Kureishi, celebrated author of My Beautiful Laundrette and London Kills Me.

Kureishi's ideas always interest me, but his characters never fail to disappoint. It's not that I always need to see good, decent people on screen. Far from it. I love a bit of ambiguity. But I want the characters to ring true. Maurice needs more of a reason to fall for Jessie than just her youthful beauty. Honestly, she's so unsympathetic, even when we reach the point in the film where she reveals she had an abortion, it's impossible to feel anything but hostility towards her.
The problem for Jodie Whittaker, the young actress playing Jessie, was she was up against a stellar cast. And whereas O'Toole can make Maurice (a plain and simple dirty old man on paper) into a real, human being, vulnerable and full of yearning, with just a blink of his world-weary eyes, Whittaker simply cannot do the same with Jessie. She offers us no subtle insight into Jessie's character, and sadly neither does the script.

The only other positive aspect of Venus is the wonderful performance of Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice's ex-wife. It seems extremely sad that actors as talented and respected as Redgrave and O'Toole are reduced to working in films as tawdry as Venus. The screen time they share is absolutely electric, and if only the whole film had been about their relationship instead it would have been a winner. Unfortunately, their chemistry only serves to further emphasize what's lacking in the relationship between Maurice and Jessie.

So, Venus, distinctly less than the sum of its parts, but worth watching, if it's on the telly, for Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips and Vanessa Redgrave. How nice it would be to see them in something of real quality.

Picture: Peter O'Toole in Venus, Free Range films.