A few years back, Peter O’Toole initially balked at accepting an honorary Academy Award for career achievement, saying he felt he still had a chance to win one outright despite going oh-for-seven with his previous nominations.
At the time, it seemed wishful thinking by an actor unlikely, in his 70s, to land the sort of role that could finally earn him that little golden trophy.
Yet O’Toole may have been right. In “Venus,” he’s back in all his rascally, randy, reprobate glory, with a role so charming, funny and melancholy it’s hard to imagine he won’t pick up another best-actor nomination.
And O’Toole does it playing someone not unlike who he really is, an aging actor who gets a late taste of the glory days of his youth.
It’s not professional glory O’Toole’s character, Maurice, craves in “Venus.” Rather, he wistfully wants a reminder of past romantic and sexual adventures, his rusty libido aroused when a coarse but comely young woman enters his life.
Maurice and a fellow acting pal, Ian (Leslie Phillips), exist like an old, cozy married couple, scrambling for whatever film or TV work might be left to a couple of geezers, reading old friends’ obituaries and wondering how many lines and columns they’ll get when they expire.
Ian’s niece packs her daughter off to stay with the old man awhile. Imagining a sweet, innocent country girl who will cook fish for him, Ian instead discovers his niece wanted to dump her wild child Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) off on him.
Petulant, sneering, disrespectful and slightly trashy, Jessie nevertheless begins to bond with her great-uncle’s buddy Maurice, whose worldliness, moderate acting celebrity and trace remains of his dashing good looks leave the girl a bit starry-eyed.
To an extent, “Venus” plays out like a geriatric twist on “Pygmalion,” only rather than Henry Higgins transforming the lowly Eliza Doolittle, here it’s as much about the street urchin who affects the seeming mentor.
Maurice playfully calls the girl Venus after the ultimate personification of female beauty and erotic love. Given Jessie’s initial rawness, the nickname seems like a little jest.
Yet Jessie soon comes to represent to Maurice the final embodiment of the things he loved most in life — giving pleasure, taking pleasure, the sights, sounds, scents, touch and taste of women. Lots of women.
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“A scientist of the female heart,” Maurice calls himself.
Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, whose collaborations include “Enduring Love” and “The Buddha of Suburbia,” take “Venus” to both sweet and gentle — and dark and foreboding — places.
The film could stand as the flipside to Michell and Kureishi’s “The Mother,” about a woman’s affair with a younger man. Yet “Venus” is its own unique story, quirky and sad, funny and stark, tragic and celebratory.
Without an instant of flashbacks, Michell and Kureishi richly lay bare Maurice’s entire life, showing us a lecherous man who thought he’d gone fallow, only to find his carnal passions — if not the ability to act on them — as strong as they were 50 years ago.
“I can still take a theoretical interest,” Maurice jokes.
All the joys, regrets, triumphs and sorrows of Maurice’s life are etched in the lines of O’Toole’s face, his alternately sparkling and haunted eyes, the variations in his sometimes booming, sometimes quivering voice.
O’Toole’s own larger-than-life career and lusty ways seem the perfect apprenticeship for the role. That’s not to say O’Toole essentially is Maurice — though in some alternate reality where the lead of “Lawrence of Arabia” went to someone else, he could have been.
Vanessa Redgrave shares a few wonderful scenes with O’Toole as Maurice’s abandoned wife, who has long since forgiven him and now serves as a stinging reminder of the home and hearth he gave up to pursue his infidelities.
O’Toole and Phillips are a joy to watch, so naturally at ease they can peck with insulting impunity at each other just as well as break into spontaneous dance together in public.
Playing a friend of Maurice and Ian, Richard Griffiths, the brilliant star of “The History Boys,” adds some nice moments of intercession between the two crusty old coots.
As her character is to Maurice, Whittaker is a blast of fresh air. In her film debut just after coming out of drama school, Whittaker combines a subtle mix of brazenness and gentle restraint, holding her own with grace and ease against O’Toole.
Venus, Maurice’s last ideal of womanhood, and “Venus,” the movie, both are heartbreakers.
In the end, the film is a straight-ahead boy-meets-girl story — half a century too late.
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