Though not the first film to examine a relationship made inappropriate by age, education, culture or class background, “Venus” may be the first to avoid settling on a single interpretation.
The lustful fascination Maurice (Peter O’Toole) has with Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), an uncultured teenage urchin, is, from the outset, disturbing and creepy. The film approaches sweetness, returns to uncomfortable and settles upon touching at the last possible moment.
Maurice is an aging actor whose daily routine involves visits between septuagenarian cronies, including his ex-wife Valerie (a perfectly understated Vanessa Redgrave) and two old acting buddies, Donald (Richard Griffiths) and Ian (Leslie Phillips). It is in Ian’s flat that Maurice first lays eyes on Jessie, Ian’s grandniece.
Because Ian is terrified of Jessie’s foul mouth and sullen attitude, Maurice takes her under his wing and out for a night of drinking. His interest in her is prurient from the very beginning — he watches her eat as though a teenager slurping up a cup of soup is an erotic act.
Yet somehow Maurice isn’t predatory. His seduction is frank and direct, equal parts Shakespearean quotations, art museums, bribery and lechery. He dubs Jessie “Venus,” and attempts to introduce her to the world of art and theater, but also plants kisses on her neck after buying her a pair of diamond earrings.
There’s never any question of a physical relationship between Maurice and Jessie, but she begins to offer up parts of herself in exchange for the validation he gives her. She allows him three kisses on the shoulder, the opportunity to smell her neck, but elbows him sharply in the groin if he tries to take it a step further.
Whittaker’s Jessie is no Eliza Doolittle. She never lapses into willing malleability, retaining her self-interest to the point of betrayal. O’Toole, though alarmingly skeletal, is funny, creepy and earnest.
When he’s not around his Venus, O’Toole’s Maurice is witty and loveable, poking fun at his own aged acting and playing the curmudgeon with his friends at their local diner. However, as soon as Jessie enters the room, even the camera’s focus changes, hovering around her hips, short-skirted thighs or lips.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and art director Emma MacDevitt have developed a distinct perspective for the film by incorporating unexpected angles and setting up shots using ordinary objects, like plants or fish tanks, to both obstruct and enhance the frame.
The camera work illustrates the way the modern world bustles around Maurice, leaving him almost bewildered in its midst, but also shows his vigor when he’s in his element, able to make the world settle down around him.
The soundtrack by Corinne Bailey Rae complements the dynamics of the film. Her appeal is timeless yet young and fresh — precisely what Maurice sees in Jessie.
Director Roger Michell has taken Hanif Kureishi’s script and handled it with a grace that neither judges nor condones Maurice’s infatuation. This is characteristic of Michell, who exercised similar powers of expressive observation in 1995’s “Persuasion.” The challenge with “Venus” is to make viewers want to see Maurice and Jessie get together, and to hate themselves for wishing it.
“Venus” is not an easy film to walk away from. Maurice’s graphic sexuality, though impotent and tempered with compassion, is still troubling. The film is never sentimental and often shocking, an exploration of the inexplicable. Leaving aside the uneasy distinction between love and lust, Maurice heals Venus simply by appreciating the value of her beautiful self.
“Venus” was written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell.
“Venus” received 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.