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Friday, January 26, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Venus" | Peter O'Toole charms

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Venus," with Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Griffiths. Directed by Roger Michell, from a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi. 95 minutes. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity. Guild 45th.

Peter O'Toole pulls off an impressive trick in "Venus," Roger Michell's character study masquerading as an April/December love story: He plays an actor who isn't quite as good as he is. Maurice, a courtly fellow in ascots and tweeds, is a veteran of the London stage who came just short of stardom. Now elderly, he's pleasantly muddling through semi-retirement, playing dying old men on television serials and hanging out at the local cafe with his buddies Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffiths). They pour their pills from bottles (noting with relish the "Keep away from children" label), drink their tea and talk about the old days.

O'Toole, still devilishly handsome at 74 (his eyes sparkle like ice in a Scotch glass), gives Maurice an unruffled, carefree quality; this is a man who sings to himself while dressing. Though his life is not without complications — he's estranged from his children and has an affectionate but distant relationship with his wife (Vanessa Redgrave), who no longer lives with him — Maurice seems a contented man, agreeably coasting through his final act. And then Jessie shows up, and everything changes.

Countless movies have been made with this particular story line: An unexpected woman (or a man) shakes up the comfortable life of a man (or a woman) set in his ways. But "Venus" is neither romantic comedy nor romantic drama but something screenwriter Hanif Kureishi has gracefully positioned in between. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is Ian's grandniece, a drifting young woman who moves into her great-uncle's apartment supposedly to help him out but mostly because she has nowhere else to go. Michell doesn't glamorize Jessie's youth; she's rather loutish and unhappy, decked out in too-tight clothes and a sour expression. Maurice, making polite conversation when meeting her, asks about her plans and is surprised to hear that she plans to be a model. "Hmm," he says pleasantly. "Do you have a fallback position?"

But despite this unpromising beginning, Maurice is soon smitten, both by her youth and by the challenge she presents. (She's not particularly interested but tolerates him because he spends money on her.) They go on outings together, and he tries to educate her about art and culture; a contemporary Pygmalion, with half a century dividing them. Their relationship quickly passes beyond the platonic, with Maurice watching Jessie almost worshipfully as she negotiates what body parts he may and may not touch. It's at times a bit off-putting but often quite moving: Something, in O'Toole's fond gaze, speaks of one last ride on the merry-go-round, before it stops for good.

And while Maurice and Jessie's relationship doesn't always ring true (Jessie's character is somewhat underwritten; we never can tell exactly what motivates her), the friendship of Maurice and Ian is beautifully drawn and a joy to watch. These gents have spent a lifetime together and speak in the shorthand of the oldest of friends. In one lovely scene, they visit a Covent Garden church. A string quartet rehearses, and the laughing men grab each other in an impromptu dance, celebrating the moment. It's a perfect little snapshot of friendship; each makes the other complete.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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