(27/01/07) – It wasn’t long ago that a notoriously demure Bill Murray was quietly sipping Santori in the company of a pouty blonde in Sofia Coppola’s much lauded Lost In Translation, or a wistfully nostalgic Carlo Delle Piane timidly mooning over his beautiful assistant in Ermanno Olmi’s contribution to the little-seen pan-European portmanteau Tickets, yet there is a new addition to the bunch. The film in question – a shapeless portrayal of inter-generational relationships and a loveless liaison based on an original screenplay by Hanif Kureishi and helmed by Roger Mitchell (who previously collaborated on the similarly exuberant The Mother) – is a tastefully executed if half-baked affair, most likely because we have, in fact, seen much of it before. Whilst bearing semblance to something Zach Braff would direct a few decades from now, Venus deserves the benefit of the doubt all the same.
It is arguably unfair to introduce Venus against the likes of such established fare as in many ways, the film populates an altogether different cinematic landscape. Infused with irresistible emotional tip-offs that recall Woody Allen’s tender dips into pan-generational desire, whilst appearing as ingenuous as anything Reese Witherspoon lends her name to, this is a heartfelt – if altogether uninspired – film.
Peter O’Toole plays Maurice, a frail, 70-year old London actor whose days are spent reminiscing about the good old past and bickering with his best mate Ian (Leslie Phillips), an actor himself. The sudden, albeit announced, arrival of Ian’s grand-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a cynical, little-do-good acerbic adolescent whose task, that of looking after her great-uncle, is soon shattered by her predilection for glossy magazines, burping and salt and vinegar crisps, is quick to send Ian to his breaking point. Maurice, on the other hand, intrigued by the young ingénue, strikes an unusually tender friendship with the young lady, which, despite getting off to a decidedly rocky start, soon blossoms into a slow-burning relationship replete with hushed confessions and puppy-love smiles.
So far, so delightfully well-paced. Venus soon devolves into a series of utterly likeable if entirely predictable comedic episodes that illuminate the film’s self-appreciative pseudo-sexual ambitions. There is, however, something decidedly ascetic in the film’s construction of an ephemerally forbidden romance and the many ways it suppresses its central conundrum of an old man’s desire for a younger woman.
More importantly, Mitchell’s film presents itself as a tender romantic comedy underscoring love as an always palpable if fleetingly unobtrusive presence, yet little but Peter O’Toole’s on screen mileage comes across with any hint of success. The film never gets far without relying on his articulate presence, and, judging by the end result, it’s a fortunate outcome.
Venus finally eschews sentimentality and favours a timidly disappointing, love-for-life resolution to its many ambivalent innuendos. Jessie is clearly flattered by the attention provided by her admirer and strangely stirred by her awareness of the authority she holds over his every move. Yet Mitchell never gets to the bottom of their relationship, preferring to skim over the less densely populated depths of the script whilst engaging with the many ways O’Toole’s aching glances, nostalgic reminiscing and hushed whispers can fill a shot.
Whilst tastefully played by O’Toole, still an acting tour de force in his own right, Venus lacks in what – dare I whisper it – contemporary rom-coms usually lack in – conviction. Aware of its target audience, Venus will readily find its niche and those who like it will love it very much. Whether that is an indication of good cinema is something for a late night debate.
Venus is playing in UK theatres now.