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Venus

Miramax Films

Directed by Roger Michell

With Peter O’Toole, Leslie Phillips, and Jodie Whittaker

Rated R

You’ve probably heard more about Venus than its limited, under-the-radar release would seem to have warranted. It’s the movie that earned star Peter O’Toole his eighth Academy Award nomination. It’s the movie about a May-December romance between a dirty old man and a tough 20-something chick. It’s a celebration of old age; it’s a vindication of spunky youth; it’s this; it’s that.

What you probably haven’t heard, except in the subtext of all the many slobbering reviews the film has garnered is what Venus is actually most notable for being: a big F.U. to Hollywood. Because just with its mere existence as a film worth seeing, as a triumph of craft, it puts to rest the notion that the reason studio films are so terrible these days is because the industry is creatively bankrupt, totally out of original ideas — which is true enough, of course. Instead, it demonstrates that, in fact, Hollywood is all but bereft of genuine talent. It’s not that the lack of new ideas in circulation is hobbling all those poor actors and directors and writers, forcing them to make do with recycled material, and that with the right material they could really show their stuff. It’s that they don’t have the stuff to begin with.

‘Cause look: Venus is nothing new. It is, no pun intended, antediluvian: the oldster on the final lap of life gets rejuvenated by a pretty young thing. The youngster gets tutored in the ways of being a grown-up — you know, like appreciating the theater and carrying herself like a woman — from her sophisticated suitor. It’s Lolita meets My Fair Lady. It’s every unbearable instance of made-for-TV Christmas schmaltz and Very Special Episode slop. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.

And yet Venus is fresh and warm and human and angry and bitter and vulgar and earthy and funny and frank. O’Toole so completely throws himself into the role of Maurice, formerly a famous actor and now just treading water ’til life runs out, that the only response is to suspect that he is letting us see the real man behind the actorly mask … or else that he can fake that raw authenticity so well that the effect is the same. This is no sparkly caricature about a dapper gent with a spring in his creaky step — this is a portrait of regrets and survival and the betrayal of our bodies as we age, and if it is O’Toole showing us his true self, he’s daring enough not to force it to be phony and flattering. There are moments when you want to look away and leave the man his dignity.

But that’s not on the agenda for screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell: they court crossing all sorts of lines with every turn of the simple plot, as Maurice befriends cranky, lively Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker, a real spitfire). Young but not naive, and fully aware of Maurice’s particular interest in her, she is no fool, no one to be taken advantage of, which eliminates the potential ick factor of her complicated relationship with Maurice. In a story that could have been about — as these kinds of stories typically are — Woman as a distant, remote ideal, this one woman turns that artistic male gaze around with a cocked eyebrow, an utter disdain for such nonsense.

And it’s that daring, that unexpectedness, that novel take on an old, old tale that makes it worth seeing again, and makes it feel like you’re seeing it for the first time.