Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 29, 2006 8:46 pm 
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A master class in acting

Though Roger Mitchell directed the easy 1999 celebrity comedy Notting Hill, with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, he has done increasingly interesting things since. Three years ago he collaborated with writer Hanif Kuraishi, of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, for a film that enters the same fearless territory as this new film, Venus: the land of age disparities in sex, of the bitter realities of decaying bodies and continuing desire. This was The Mother (2003), in which May (Anne Reed), a woman in her sixties, has a brief reviving affair with a thirty-something builder called Darren (Daniel Craig). The Mother’s title points to the fact that May has grown children, and the film deals with the complexities of family and relationships.

Kuraishi brings the same fierce honesty about age and sexuality to Venus. This Kuraishi-Mitchell collaboration is destined for greater fame than the last, because happily it chooses to wrap itself around a great star, that same Peter O’Toole who 44 years ago became the unforgettable and luminous hero of David Lean’s Laurence of Arabia.

At 74 O’Toole is Maurice, an actor living alone well past his prime, the ravages of age compounded in him by too much alcohol and too many cigarettes and the inward marking of a slow decline in roles. Maurice gave up long ago being anybody’s husband or father. He lives alone. He and Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffith) meet in a cheap restaurant where the older Ian, who’s having short-term memory problems and beginning to have more trouble coping for himself, announces he’s to have some relatives’ young daughter, a girl from the provinces, coming up to London to live with him and serve as an un-uniformed nurse.

Perhaps Ian is Gielgud, only less successful and less elegant. Ian is lordly, a prima donna, whose delicate sensibilities can’t abide an untutored member of the younger generations – and who therefore can’t stand young Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) when she arrives.

Maurice can. She’s ill-dressed and bad-mannered but she’s fetching. Maurice sees that. He socializes with her, relates with her as a person; then as a man; then as an aging suitor. For a while, they have something to give each other. It ends unpleasantly. Then, for a moment, it revives and has one last beautiful moment. And it’s over. Kuraishi tells this story as much as possible without sugar coating. Some moments are embarrassing and hard to watch. When sweetness comes, it’s earned and surprises and touches.

Maurice hasn’t got much of life to live. But he grabs what he can while he can. And he gives pleasure. That’s all he ever wanted.

Maurice gets Jessie a job as an art class nude model – she wanted to do “modeling.” Then he spies on her nakedness in the studio and falls in a doorway and knocks over an easel.

She likes him – he’s nice to her – but she also rebuffs him at times. She’s a rude girl with low tastes but, when speaking of and to her, he recites Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate….” She listens. When he sees her beautiful body, her skin, her eyes, her youth, her sex, and speaks of that, he makes her happy.

Maurice enters another theater – the operating kind – and has his prostate removed. He is impotent and wears a catheter. He can’t perform any more. But he can touch and admire. He can desire. He has a small part in a costume film and hires a big limo to go to the shoot with Jessie – he calls her “Venus” now, comparing her to a painting – and he almost faints during the shoot. She gets him to pay for a snake tattoo on her hand and has a scrawny boyfriend (Bronson Webb) and they use Maurice’s flat to have sex. He gets angry and kicks them out. There’s a scuffle and he’s knocked down and the kids run off. Later she comes back, find him, and calls 911. He’s incapacitated. Out of shame, she volunteers to care for him. Sick as he is, he goes to the beach with her, where he grew up, and this is his last idyll.

There is bravery and intelligence in Kuraishi’s writing and O’Toole’s acting, but the richness of this surprisingly complex little film is in the details, gestures, intonations that must be seen to be appreciated. Maurice has a wife (a wonderfully disheveled Vanessa Redgrave). He abandoned her long ago but their relationship is rueful and sweet. In their accomplished ease Redgrave’s scenes with O’Toole are a master class in acting. It’s had to imagine how two performers could be any better together than this. But it’s the scenes between O’Toole and his Venus (Whittaker) that matter, with their honesty and awkward affection, without prettiness, without fakeness. Kuraishi may seem to try too hard to be raw, playing on the shock value of oldster’s using four-letter-words, but this is a film, like The Mother, with the painful feel of real experience, expanded to the level of a great, sad open soul by the remarkable O’Toole.

The film ends with Ian and Donald in the cheap restaurant looking at Maurice’s obituary. It’s a good one – many columns, with a big picture of O’Toole when he was young. The waitress comes up and looks at the picture and says, "But he was gorgeous!" and Ian says, "Yes, he was gorgeous!" – two of the most profoundly resonant lines in film this year.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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