Best friends Maurice (Peter O'Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) are not getting any younger, and it has got the stage where the most they have to look forward to in life is taking their medication and reading the obituaries to see if their names are included. They are both actors, and once tread the boards in celebrated productions of the classics, but now they are lucky if they get a role as a dying grandfather in a hospital bed, something which strikes a little too close to home for them. However, Ian's niece has arranged for her daughter Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) to stay with him and look after him...
...and with that movie-style predictability, she does Maurice the power of good, making him feel many years younger. Either that or it reawakens this ex-hellraiser and womaniser's lustful desires being so close to a young lady again for the first time in ages, but that is what makes Venus so arresting, that the characters are no saints and writer Hanif Kureishi does not sugarcoat their relationships. Not that he doesn't allow them their sentimental moments, but he recognises the value of contrasting these with scenes where they are selfish and of dubious motive.
A lot like real people, then, and speaking of real people was there a viewer of this film who did not think that O'Toole was intrinsically playing himself? Here he was everything you hoped he would be at this age, incorrigible, witty, hanging onto past glories and making the most of what time he had left. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this, proof that there was a lot of goodwill towards him, and why not? He had earned it and to see him with his talent undiminished was a pleasure. So if the role of Maurice was not a stretch, it was precisely the kind of thing the public wanted to see him perform.
But let us not forget the supporting cast, and Phillips was equally appreciated by audiences, proving that beneath that light actor's exterior that had served him so well throughout a long career, he could easily slip into a more serious métier and do it so well. Whittaker, too, took what could have been a cliché and allowed humanity to shine through, making Jessie not a simple sex object but something more complex even if she cannot match up to Maurice's ideals. Venus was actually a very gentle film, for all its swearing and stark intrusion of real life into fantasy, and while they have their ups and downs, the bonds that emerged between the characters exhibited quite some tenderness.
Ian is aghast at Jessie, an uncouth teen who is in London to take advantage of his home for somewhere to stay while she pursues her dream of modelling - she doesn't even know how to cook fish, he laments. Kureishi treads a fine line between "Aren't the youth of today as awful as you've read about in the newspapers?" and "What do you know? Maybe they're not as bad as is made out", and not always steadily, but his material is in capable hands. Maurice fals in love with Jessie, or at least what she represents to him, and while she simply uses him to buy her things, they reach an understanding that has a compromise about it, yet also a meeting of minds where they realise they can learn from each other. The film is hard-edged enough to accept that this is not something which will last, and it's no shock that the inevitable occurs at the end, but that great inevitability is something the story arrives at with grace. Music by Corinne Bailey Rae.