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Love and the Dirty Old Man

Closing night of the Chicago International Film Festival brought us a treat - a new film starring Peter O'Toole. Anyone, male or female, who didn't fall in love with him in Lawrence of Arabia had to have been very jaded indeed. His portrayal of a rather naive and vulnerable adventurer made almost mad by his experiences in North Africa is a performance for the ages. In Venus, O'Toole plays a character very close to himself, an elderly actor of renown, who takes one more shot at love with a barely legal girl. He is no longer naive, but he is just vulnerable and at least as seductive.

Maurice (O'Toole) accompanies his actor friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) from the hospital where he has just been discharged to Ian's flat. They shop to restock Ian's home with food and essentials. When they reach Ian's spotless and beautifully appointed apartment, Ian informs Maurice that his great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) will be coming to look after him. "I bought a bell to keep by my bedside," Ian cheerfully informs Maurice, and gives the obnoxious object a tinkle.


The day of Jessie's arrival, Ian runs to the diner where Maurice and another friend (Richard Griffiths) are having tea and says the girl is a complete nightmare. "I bought a nice piece of halibut, and she didn't know how to cook it!" Ian despairs. Maurice decides to accompany Ian home and meet the she-devil herself. Maurice gets Ian settled and offers to make him a cup of tea. He moves through the familiar flat where he has been a visitor for decades and slowly passes an open doorway. Sitting in it like a scruffy black cat is Jessie. Her eyes are thick with liner, her clothes are barely there, and she wears the insolent scowl of most people her age. Maurice is intrigued.

He stops by the apartment again, and this time asks Jessie a little about herself. She wants to be a model. She's not very attractive, so Maurice asks if she has a fallback plan. "Don't you think I can be a model?" she spits at him. He backpedals. He has learned in his long life how to smooth over his thoughtless insults, of which he has no doubt made many. He says he can probably help her because he knows a lot of people. "You famous or something?" Jessie asks. "A bit," Maurice demurs. He says his full name. She doesn't recognize it.

venus.jpgTrue to his word, Maurice gets her a modeling job. She will be posing nude for his art class. Well, we saw this seduction coming, and now Jessie's in on it, too. She agrees, but only if Maurice leaves the class. He tries to position himself at the transom of a door, but ends up falling through and knocking over several easels. The comic timing of the scene, and Maurice's guilty-but-innocent response are priceless. After class, Maurice takes Jessie to the National Gallery, where they study Velasquez's Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus). He tells her that Venus was a goddess who inspired people to love. He said that a real model posed for the goddess, just like she does. From that moment on, he calls her "Venus" and is, too, inspired to love.

The delicacy of this drama could have been spoiled at any moment. We're looking at what most of us would call a dirty old man. But O'Toole shows us that the old have a lot to offer in the way of love and the experience to know how to offer it. Yes, Maurice was a ladies' man, and we see his routine. He plies Jessie with gifts and impresses her with a limousine ride and the chance to be on a movie set as he plays a bit part in a costume drama. But he really does care. He becomes faint on the set, but one look at her concerned face lifts him up, and he carries on as a man renewed.

For her part, Whittaker plays Jessie as a young girl who can't exactly explain why she's so turned on by this relic. She gives him small sexual favors - three kisses on her shoulder, permission to smell her neck - and becomes very cross if he tries for more. But his kindness to her, particularly when she shares the secret of a first love and a forced abortion, wins her heart as well.

The supporting cast of elderly actors, including Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice's wife, brings the world of the aged to life in a plausible way. The concern with obituaries, the long-standing relationships that are as much a part of life as breathing itself, the infirmities, hospitals, healthcare workers - this is what we all face should we reach our golden years. These images are not often seen on the screen, and very few directors take up this subject with any regularity. The master of the silver-haired screen is Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox, whose A Woman's Tale is the pinnacle of the genre.

For his part, director Roger Michell keeps the film in perfect balance. His touch for romance has been well developed on such films as Persuasion (1995) and Notting Hill (1999). But it is to screenwriter Hanif Kureishi I tip my hat. This is a beautifully written screenplay that deserved to be honored with the talents of O'Toole, Redgrave, and the rest of the uniformly fine cast. This Miramax film will come out in general release. Make time to see it.

Marilyn Ferdinand is The Beachwood Reporter's resident film critic, and the proprietor of Ferdy on Films. Her exclusive coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival includes:

* "Better Than Fiction," her opening guide to the festival.

* "Corruption and Comedy," a review of The Comedy of Power, a French New Wave film whose themes will be instantly recognizable to anyone with even the sketchiest knowledge of Chicago politics.

* "Soul in Flames," a review of Requiem, a remarkable film about modern-day possession and exorcism.

* "A Talent for Torment," three reviews in one (Spirit of the Soul, Ode to Joy, Steel City) from a disappointing day at the festival.

* "Deep in the Heart of Dixie," a review of Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, the inside story of the Dixie Chicks' political and personal journey as Southern girls ashamed of their Texan president.

* "Boot Straps and Black Boys," a review of Shoot the Messenger, a British film that challenges standard racial notions in part by featuring a character who might best be described as a black Joe Lieberman Republican.

* "The Elusive Quality of Truthiness," reviews of three films, including the Austrian film Slumming, La Terra from Italy and the Romanian comedy, 12:08 East of Bucharest.

* "And the Hugo Goes To . . . " This year's Hugo Award winners are announced.

* "The Chicago Way," a rare view of the beautifully restored 1927 original.


Posted on October 21, 2006

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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