You turn us back to dust, and say,
‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like
a dream, like grass that is renewed
in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
Go see this study of old age and its persistent affirmation of life, and then ask yourself whether or not actor Peter O’Toole was again robbed of “Best Actor Oscar.” Although at 74 (and far sturdier than he appears in this film) he still has many films to make, if Venus were to be his last, what a way to go out! Thanks to Hanif Kureishi’s literate script (he also wrote My Beautiful Launderette) and Roger Michell’s firm direction, keeping all from the four veteran stars from any tendency to “ham it up,” this little gem of a film will be one to return to again and again, it is so good.
Maurice (Peter O’Toole), Ian (Leslie Phillips), and Donald ( Richard Griffiths) are three thespians who meet regularly for coffee to share their aches and pains and fond memories of their days in the theater when they were well known to the theater-attending public. Maurice still is able to obtain a small part, but Ian is so disabled that his grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is dispatched to live with and take care of him. However, they do not get along, partly because she hasn’t a clue as to what to do in the kitchen; also she is so surly that Ian is convinced she was actually kicked out by her mother and foisted onto him. Maurice, however, has a very different view of the 19 year-old, dubbing her “Venus,” after the painting to which he introduces her when they visit the National gallery and stand before the great painting by Velasquez, “Rokeby Venus.” Despite his operation for prostate cancer rendering him impotent, Maurice is strongly attracted to the girl.
At first she sees him as a doddering old fool from which she can extract what she wants, including the use of his apartment for an afternoon of sex with her scruffy boy friend that she has picked up somewhere. She does not want Maurice to touch her at first, but as their relationship grows, she permit’s a kiss and touch on her shoulder. There is a lovely moment while she is taking a bath and Maurice’s recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” obviously touches her, this probably being the first time she has ever heard such poetry. She is thrilled to ride with him in the huge limousine that he has ordered to be transported in to the site at which the costume film he has a small part in is being shot. When he has a brief spell that interrupts his on-camera dialogue, she is at last genuinely concerned for his welfare. The story of her transformation, which is subtly shown in change of make-up, hairstyle and clothing, will remind one of Pygmalion.
This depiction of old age still seeking the joy of youth and of living in general comes to dirty old man territory, but skirts it just in time. This is a touching tale of age and youth and an appetite for life that refuses to fade away, right up to the end.
1) What in the film confirms and what challenges your view of the elderly? How close do you think Maurice is to what Jesus meant when he said, “You must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven “?
2) What is Jessie like when Maurice first meets her? How does she change during the course of her relationship with Maurice?
3) How does death hang over the characters? What do you think of Maurice’s statement, “I am about to die, and I know nothing about myself” ? A confession? Why do you think he says this—do you believe that he has carried over his acting from the stage into his life and relationships?
4) Why do you think Ian asks, “Do you believe in anything, Maurice?” What do you think Maurice means when he says, “Pleasure…all I can give is pleasure?” How is this in keeping with great performers who obviously give their all when appearing before the public? Would you say this is the “calling” of an entertainer?
5) What has apparently happened in Maurice’s marriage? How do we see that he and wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave) have reconciled? What grace do you see in his last visit with her?
6) How did you feel when Ian and Maurice visit St. Paul’s and gaze at the plaques where former colleagues are buried, such as Laurence Harvey and Robert Shaw? What do you think that the little dance that the two perform signifies? Compare it to the beautiful circle dance of the five sisters in Dancing at Lughnasa or the two men dancing by the sea in Zorba the Greek.
7) Why do you think Maurice wanted to go so badly with Jessie to the sea? (Note the seascape painting that we see several times in the film.) What might the waters of the sea symbolize?