Venus is the story of aging actors Maurice (Peter O'Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips). Despite their hopes, neither has become quite as accomplished as they once expected, or thought they deserved. Now both continue to act in minor roles, able to play only characters that their weakening bodies can handle (such as a corpse). Their fading careers and waning lives are turned upside down by the arrival of Ian's great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), a sullen teenager. Ian, already suffering from anxiety problems, discovers that Jessie's presence only aggravates his condition. Maurice, however, is intrigued by this new arrival and welcomes her into his life. Despite his age, the Shakespeare-quoting Maurice still nurtures his appetite for young women.
Shortly after Jessie's arrival, Maurice invites her to join him for a trip to the theater. Drama is a new experience for Jessie, and she's spellbound by the stage performance. Following a few rounds at the bar after the play, Jessie staggers home supported by Maurice. After she passes out on the sofa, Maurice removes her shoes and gently strokes her feet. Unlike Jessie, the hedonistic Maurice feels like he has nothing to lose so he pushes the envelope. Jessie, who Maurice begins to call Venus, resists but gradually blurs the boundaries, giving the persistent Maurice more and more access to her body.
The acting performances in Venus are exceptional. O'Toole still has the same probing gleam in his eyes that was there decades ago in How to Steal a Million and Lawrence of Arabia. Whittaker responds to O'Toole's advances with a cautious fascination that is both believable and suspenseful. Phillips acts like a flustered senior citizen whose medical problems are probably not as serious as he wants everyone to believe. Donald (Richard Griffith), a portly friend of Ian and Maurice, joins them in several scenes and tries to keep their relationship from exploding, especially after Ian finds out how Maurice has been treating Jessie. But by then, Jessie has taken some ownership for her liaison with Maurice. When Ian asks, "Who the hell is Venus?" she defiantly replies, "I am," obviously relishing the name Maurice has given her. This intelligent film is further enriched with a fine musical score by the young British singer Corinne Bailey Rae.
However, Venus is less about a potentially toxic relationship between a girl in her late teens and a man old enough to be her grandfather, than it is about the loneliness and heartbreak of old age. Maurice and Ian have fresh minds that are clear and bright, coupled with exhausted bodies aching to settle down for a rest. Ian is collecting disability checks, and Maurice survives prostate surgery to face life with a tube used to drain bladder. Maurice's body and his philosophy of life are both failing him. When asked, "Don't you believe in anything, Maurice?" he replies, "Pleasure. I've tried to give pleasure. That's all I'd recommend to anyone." More perplexed than despondent, Maurice says, "I'm about to die, and I know nothing about myself." His friend tries to comfort him by saying, "you've been loved, you've been adored," but the effort is as hopeless as Maurice's relationship with Jessie. The response doesn't address the problem because it's a problem without a solution for the aged Maurice.
Subconsciously, Maurice knows that he and Jessie live in two different worlds. He sees the critical messages from the public and the accusing glare through the rear view mirror of the taxi driver as the inebriated Jessie leans against him in the back seat. He hears the vicious criticism of his best friend. He tries to defend himself, but he stumbles around in Jessie's world like a drugged animal, realizing that he had lost before the effort began, before he began to solicit the attention and favors of this young woman.
Venus is skillfully directed by Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes). The spicy script is full of laughs, and the unwavering focus of this fine film are the characters in the story. It's their tragic lives the director wants us to see and appreciate, and he presents them with sensitivity and compassion. In spite of the characters faults, this is a film without villains. The threatened boundaries are eventually reinforced at slightly different locations, and the menacing relationship detoxified. Venus closes with scenes of remarkable tenderness and respect, a testimony to the power of the human spirit to heal relationships and bring people together.