In Venus, Peter O'Toole's eyes still glitter with curiosity despite a body that's near-cadaverous and a face that's unnervingly skull-like. And that curiosity mingles splendidly with arousal when his character, the aging British actor Maurice Russell, claps those orbs on a sullen, barely literate teenager named Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). Maurice responds at once to the banked energy that some adolescents exude simply lolling on the sofa. Jessie responds in her own slow and surly way to his appreciation. The movie follows their May-December - make that March-December - semi-romance with an observant and unruly wit that overflows with insight about growing up and growing old.
Venus has been so deftly crafted to showcase its great cast that it's tempting to give them all the credit for the film's unlikely and exhilarating success as an Educating Rita meets Lolita. And O'Toole is phenomenal. He never begs for sympathy or adds an undue quaver to his mellifluous voice. His body is a close-to-toppling tree. What holds it up is his robust soul. O'Toole keeps creative distance from the character, so that we see Maurice in all his charm and fallibility. At the same time, he rouses a spirit of affirmative gaiety that emanates from his own essence as a performer and a man.
Venus (Miramax) Starring Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips, Jodie Whittaker, Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by Roger Michell. Rated R. Time 97 minutes.