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United Kingdom 2006
Directed by
Roger Michell
95 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
2.5 stars


Synopsis:  Maurice (Peter O’Toole), an aging B-grade actor with a prostate problem, spends his days in banter and reading death notices with friends Ian (Lesley Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffiths) as well as doing the odd acting gig. When Ian’s great niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) turns up to supposedly care for her uncle, Ian can’t stand her, but Maurice, ever a womaniser, decides to educate the girl and teach her a bit about culture and life.

This film, from the director of Notting Hill (1999) and the writer of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) Hanif Kureishi , has many things to love about it, but also many things that really bothered me. The obvious thing to relish is the fine performance by Peter O’Toole.  Despite his obvious physical decrepitude, O’Toole brings to Maurice a wit, sparkle and flirtatiousness that any man years his junior would be proud of. Phillips, another veteran English actor  and O’Toole make a fine pair of old codgers, one whingeing, always tired and almost resigned to his fate, the other still grasping at life, but both sharing a warm and touching friendship. Their endless swearing and cursing however seemed overly laboured and contrived to get cheap laughs, as do a couple of other scenes playing on physical humor that seem totally out of place. In fact the film just doesn’t seem to know what sort of tone it wants to take and could have been far more effective with more consistency in its approach.

Maurice and Ian’s differing attitudes to life are totally mirrored in how they perceive Jessie. Ian is at his wit’s end with the girl after one day; she loafs around swigging beer, can barely cook and is rude and sullen. Maurice, however, sees her as a fascinating challenge – and when he extracts from her that she wants to be a model, he dubs her Venus, after a painting by Velasquez.  Whittaker, making her film debut here, gives us a girl who is at first uncouth and generally appealing, and here lies my main reservation with the plot. Why on earth would a cultured man like Maurice be bothered with this style of young woman, unless he saw something in her that I just couldn’t? Maybe he’s simply fascinated by her youth, maybe he thinks he’s in with a chance, though he makes no bones about telling her he’s impotent! There are however a number of vaguely sexual interactions between them, which for me came across as somewhat tacky; Jessie lets Maurice do some things, usually in exchange for what she can get out of him. Equally, I found it somewhat unbelievable that such a style of young woman would have developed this friendship with Maurice, and the turnaround she undergoes near the end is also too forced for my liking.  The archetypal story of the Ugly Duckling, and the caterpillar-to-butterfly scenario has been more seamlessly effected in other films. 

Back to the positives: there are some lovely scenes with Maurice’s estranged wife, Valerie (played beautifully by Vanessa Redgrave), and overall it’s terrific to see a film that presents older folk as something more than just fodder for amusement and as people with a rich history and a life to be admired. Some scenes could almost be parallels for O’Toole’s real life (apparently the actor did break his hip in the middle of shooting and had to take three weeks off).

As a reflection upon aging and actors’ pain of having to see themselves fallen from their former glory Venus possesses much poignancy. It's just a pity that this excellent idea is carried by a script with a few too many holes to really hold water.




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