by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & Venus & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "A & lt;/span & dirty old man and a sluttish young girl -- that's what this story is about," says Peter O'Toole in the featurette on the DVD of Venus. Director Roger Michell, however, asserts that his film is trying to achieve "a balance between Lolita and Educating Rita."
So is Venus inspirational and compassionate, or is it just pandering to horndogs? More of the former. O'Toole plays Maurice, an elderly actor in London whose fussy best friend (the marvelous Leslie Phillips, in the business for nearly 70 years) is rather frightened of the niece he's taken on as a housekeeper. Jessie's crude and sullen at first, but talented newcomer Jodie Whitaker illuminates whenever O'Toole's Pygmalion figure gazes at her with desire.
A snap response to Venus would dismiss the two of them as lecher and skank, and it's clear what a dying man might want from a beautiful girl. But what Venus also clarifies is that a young woman who craves affection (early on, she's continually snacking on something) just might fall for an old coot who was, a couple of generations ago, just about the silver screen's most handsome leading man.
There's a reason that O'Toole has been nominated for an Oscar eight times now: He's an amazing actor. When he convinces Jessie to do some figure modeling for an art class, he's perched on a sofa, sucking on a cigarette with masculine self-satisfaction. Study the look on his face when he first sees Jessie, lovely in a formal dress. With his eyes widening, lips parting and papery skin crinkling, he shows us an elderly man's realization that beauty is being displayed to him for just about the last time.
In only three scenes as Maurice's ex-wife (there's a fourth among the deleted scenes), Vanessa Redgrave is riveting. At an impromptu dinner for just the two of them, he recalls how he abandoned her long ago. With her chin jutting in resentment, Redgrave admonishes him: "But you put your own pleasure first."
Earlier, Maurice had proclaimed that giving others pleasure was his greatest happiness. Venus avoids glorifying anyone -- not the slattern Jessie, not Phillips' grouch, and certainly not O'Toole's pleasure-questing Maurice -- but it offers plenty of pleasure for those who can see past the supposed creepiness of a May/December romance.