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Not quite a romance: (l-r) O’Toole and Whittaker in Venus.

Lust for Life

By Laura Leon

Venus

Directed by Roger Michell

There’s a moment, late in Roger Michell’s Venus, in which aged actors Maurice (Peter O’Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) peruse the names of their dead fellow thespians on the wall of a church, in which the viewer has one of those “huh” moments, like something you’d experience walking in on an intensely personal moment between two people. In this case, that the characters are openly contemplating their imminent demises is reason enough to give pause, but even more so, the fact that the 74-year-old O’Toole himself will, before long, join that pantheon with talents like Laurence Olivier, Laurence Harvey, Alec Guinness, and so on. For movie lovers, it’s a slap in the face, the realization that a golden age of postwar cinema is down to its last surviving members. Like Maurice and Ian, we want to hang on, but in our case, it’s to an image such as the golden-haired, blue-eyed O’Toole of Lawrence of Arabia.

What Maurice ends up hanging on to, but only when she’ll let him near her, is Ian’s slovenly, rude grandniece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), whom he dubs Venus. Explaining that he’s impotent, and therefore no real threat, Maurice attempts to befriend and even mold the girl, who has dreams of becoming a model. At times, Jessie lets Maurice touch her—“you can kiss my shoulder three times”—before recoiling in horror at his aged lips and the slop he leaves on her skin. Her cruelty is stunning, but it’s matched somewhat by the fact that Maurice, by his own admission to ex-wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave), is hardly a sweet-natured person, having years ago abandoned her “holding the babies” in favor of cultivating a parade of other women. When Jessie slaps Maurice, or insults him, he chuckles, clearly enjoying that fact that she’s taking him seriously.

It’s this need to be dealt with, even as an annoyance, as opposed to being forgotten or relegated to some back corner to fade away, that draws the ailing Maurice to Jessie. Over time, his caresses of Jessie’s supple skin lose their ick factor, because what Maurice is after isn’t so much sexual or titillating, as it is youth and connectedness. One can see how he longs deeply for his own lost youth and beauty. Indeed, as the movie progresses, it becomes markedly sadder, as the inevitable moment ticks down. Somehow, Hanif Kureishi’s script is able yet to deliver pristine moments of wry wit and bawdy humor amid the sadness.

This is O’Toole’s show, all the way. He imbues every movement, every word spoken or eyebrow raised, with arch nuance, reminding one and all of his glorious career—and serving notice that he’s not quite done yet. Whittaker clearly has the trickier role, in part because she’s written to be Maurice’s foil more than a fully dimensional character in her own right, but she proves up to the task of going toe-to-toe with a master. Beyond the powerhouse acting, though, Venus is most remarkable for its open exploration of issues dealing with age, particularly loneliness and heartache. It’s the filmmakers’ insistence on revealing to us that the gaping maw that is Maurice’s mouth was once, presumably, a great instrument of pleasure—and making us believe it—that goes a long way toward humanizing the story. Not surprisingly, Kureishi and Michell paired up to make 2003’s The Mother, in which 60-something Anne Reid got it on with a pre-Bond Daniel Craig. As with that movie, Venus turns matters which, in lesser hands, could prove distasteful into an elegy on life and love.

Without Feeling

Amazing Grace

Directed by Michael Apted

Amazing Grace certainly makes for a better marquee than William Wil berforce. Which is perhaps an explanation for why this historical drama by Michael Apted uses the title of an evangelical hymn for its portrayal of Wilberforce’s decades-long struggle to end slavery in 18th-century England. As a movie, Amazing Grace is an admirable biography meant to popularize a resolute philanthropist, but despite the filmmakers’ best efforts at giving it entertainment value, Wilberforce’s unwieldy and protracted legal battle proves to be a stolid cinematic experience.

The choice of Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) as the film’s hero might’ve been made for clarity—he was the centrifugal force behind the eventual passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (and died the next day)—but as a character, he dulls in comparison to his wily contemporaries, especially his lifelong friend, Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch); the dashing freedom fighter and writer Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell); and Pitt’s powerful Whig rival, Lord Fox (Michael Gambon).

It doesn’t help that Gruffudd is a somewhat stagy actor, or that he’s practically pushed off the screen at several turns by the stellar supporting cast, including Toby Jones as a ducal representative of the rotting aristocracy. Meanwhile, the back-and-forth narrative muddles such pivotal events as a “conversion experience” that almost led Wilberforce to become a preacher. Even his whirlwind romance with a beautiful progressive (the consistently boring Romola Garai) is a trudge: Their courtship consists of ideological sparring that’s part information dissemination, and part framework for flashbacks of the younger Wilberforce, whose sharp oratory gives the script ripe opportunity for Parliamentary ripostes.

After recuperating, mid-career, from exhaustion and colitis, Wilberforce returns to Parliament with a nifty piece of legislation concocted by a maritime lawyer that puts a serious dent in the slave trade to the West Indies. How Wilberforce and his coalition slide this deceptively superficial bill past the pro-slavery representative of Liverpool (Ciarán Hinds) is one of Apted’s more successful ploys at enlivening what is in essence a history lesson writ large. And as such, it’s exemplary. Between Wilberforce and his allies, the factual horrors of slavery in the British Empire are authentically exposed, with a grace note, as it were, from John Newton (a moving Albert Finney), the former slave-ship captain turned Anglican priest who composed “Amazing Grace.” However it’s indicative of the film’s lack of fervor that the use of Newton’s hymn in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood had a greater impact than a recital within its own context.

—Ann Morrow


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