I celebrated the beginning of my spring break by seeing Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi’s Venus (IMDB). Because the preview suggested a pop-styled Pygmalion story, I considered skipping the film, but Kureishi’s earlier work (My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) piqued my interest, and the chance to watch Peter O’Toole on the big screen proved too much to resist. Plus, after seeing ten other movies at the Cameo, I had earned a free ticket. I’m still not convinced that Venus escapes the Pygmalion problem, but O’Toole’s self-deprecating performance at least manages to complicate it to some extent.

O’Toole plays Maurice, a seventy-something actor who is part of a generation of British actors now fading away, their virility and masculinity undercut by old age. This point is underscored by the opening scene in which Maurice and fellow actor, Ian, divide up their pills in a local coffeehouse. Ian somewhat reluctantly hires his grand-niece, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), as a live-in nurse, and Maurice quickly takes an interest in the teenage Jessie, who has vague wishes to become a model, though she does little, at first, to pursue this career, preferring instead to sit idly in front of a loud television set, snacking on crisps.

The scenes in which Maurice goes about introducing Jessie to the theater are sufficiently breezy and slyly subverted when Maurice gently chides her for not knowing the author of Hamlet. Jessie counters by pointing out that Maurice doesn’t know who wrote a pop music lyric she likes, and Jessie never fully relinquishes her tastes, saving the film, at least to some extent from becoming just another Pygmalion story. At the same time, Maurice seems fully aware of the absurdity of his crush on a woman fifty years younger than him, but I’m not quite sure the film fully escapes from this criticism, in part because the desires that might be motivating Jessie’s actions are not addressed as explicitly as Maurice’s. Instead, for much of the film, she comes across as slightly sullen until Maurice begins to see something interesting in her. In some ways, I thought Venus worked best in its depiction of a class of aging British actors and actresses, including Maurice’s ex-wife (played by Vanessa Redgrave, who should have received far more screen time), and the long friendships they had shared.

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