Death is one of the two great horrors of life from which we never recover. The other is love, and its kissing cousin, sex -- although not necessarily in that order.
So it goes with Maurice (Peter O'Toole), a very old, rather famous actor with a prostate problem and a lifetime of stories to tell about his work on stage and in film.
When we meet him at his home in London, he pretty much has only three people left in his life to hear them. Two are fellow thespians: Ian (Leslie Phillips), who's not as sick as he thinks, and Donald (Richard Griffiths), who's hardly sick at all (unless obesity counts). The other is his wife (Vanessa Redgrave), who still welcomes his visits, even though he abandoned her and their three children almost half a century ago.
Enter Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), Ian's grandniece, sent to look after the avuncular old cur. She's working-class, and then some, and she can't even cook a halibut. But when Maurice lays eyes on her, he once again becomes -- if only in his heart and mind -- something that he never really stopped being: horny and in love.
Let's be clear about something here: Maurice is not a dirty old man. There's nothing dirty about sexual desire, not when the object is your age, and not when she's young and beautiful. For whosoever loses that immutable craving might as well be dead. The gratifying friendship that develops between Ian and Jessie -- whom he dubs Venus, after a trip to a museum -- is lovely and sad and funny, just what you want from an intimate drama that distills human experience into 90 minutes. The screenplay, by the novelist-filmmaker Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette), is beautifully concise, and Roger Michell (Notting Hill) directs it with the delicacy that it deserves.
Venus begins with Maurice and Ian, two cagey old actors whose camaraderie has become their own personal vaudeville. Jessie shakes them up, and her character arc is intriguing: She's more curious about Maurice than she lets on, but she's disadvantaged by her social class, and the low expectations that come with it. She's a good girl, she is -- obviously, Eliza to his Pygmalion. But in real life, people are made of flesh, not clay.
The acting is quite fine, gentle and underplayed, except for a few moments when Kureishi and Michell allow the old-timers some light-hearted guignol. The centerpiece, of course, is the 74-year-old O'Toole, who neither looks good nor sounds good, and whose face seems to be locked into a curved half-grin. In other words: It's wonderful to see him again, just as he's always been, toned down by age perhaps, but also by the role. When Maurice serenades Jessie with Shakespeare's 18th sonnet, O'Toole breaths glorious life into a work of art that's become stale from too much study. If Venus is to be his swan song, then sing on.