Peter O’Toole, 74, plays a still-employable British actor in thrall to a friend’s grand-niece, nineteen-year-old Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). Don’t go, “Eww.” From his 1962 starring debut in Lawrence of Arabia to his hilarious turn in My Favorite Year, O’Toole is that rarest of species: an actor of stature who is also a movie star of genuine glamour. Shockingly, he’s never won an Oscar. The master class in acting he delivers in Venus, directed by Roger Michell from a script by Hanif Kureishi, may change all that. His Maurice banters with fellow thespian Ian (a terrific Leslie Phillips) and visits his ex-wife Valerie (a transcendent Vanessa Redgrave radiates wit and grace). “How gorgeous you were,” she says, watching him on the telly in an old movie co-starring the actress for whom he left her and the children.
But Maurice is drawn to the crude Jessie (Whittaker is a newcomer to watch), though both know sex would kill him. She’s a tease, letting him kiss her neck (“Just don’t slobber”). He takes her to plays, movies and clubs to show he’s still “a little bit famous.” He even gets her a job as a nude model and takes her to the National Gallery to see his favorite painting, Veláazquez’s portrait of Venus. And slowly this spellbinder of a film reveals itself as a meditation on youth and beauty. For Maurice, who once had both, Jessie’s aura of sensual awakening is something he wants to breathe in. She, of course, can’t live up to the concept — it’s all in Maurice’s head. O’Toole gives a staggering performance — fearless, defiantly untamed and in its own way a work of art.