The best way to age well is to have such great infrastructure that the years melt away everything but your handsome facial bones. That’s Peter O’Toole in Venus. At moments, he looks like he just levitated off a slab, yet he makes decay beautiful — you can fall in love with his weary gaze and still-noble cheekbones, with the withered smile that can’t decide whether it’s glowing or dying. O’Toole, over the decades, has played drunks and egomaniacs and wastrels, yet he’s unique among the generation of British actors who grew up in the shadow of Olivier (Finney the bellowing lion, Burton the neurotic ham) in that he has always kept his eyes turned up to the heavens.
He does it again in Venus, where he plays Maurice, an ancient London actor — a minor celebrity of the theater — who has lived a life of art and pleasure and now, with prostate problems and a nagging libido, is headed none too quietly into that good night. He meets Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the shapely, boozy, crass yet fresh-faced working-class grandniece of a fellow old actor, and he nicknames her Venus. The two are as spiritually removed from each other as Humbert and Lolita, yet according to the movie’s sentimental logic, that’s why they’re destined to be the best of friends. Or more.
Written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) and directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), Venus has a swank pedigree, but in this case that doesn’t mean it’s much more than a quaint machine to elicit tears and awards. The film’s soft edge is that it pretends to make no bones about what a horny old goat Maurice is. His relationship with Jessie is an elaborate seduction — the two barter over which body parts he can touch — yet even as O’Toole plays the literate lech as a cranky charmer, the film cops out by sanctifying his lust, turning Jessie into a punk Eliza Doolittle and his coveting of her into a ”soul” connection that’s barely supported by anything we see. Maurice, at the brink of death, looks over his life, yet somehow he never confronts that he lived it only for himself. That’s the magic — or is it just the fab trick? — of the O’Toole twinkle.