By Rick Kisonak | February 13, 2007

You know what death looks like in most movies. It looks like a fall from a high rooftop, a knife in the back or the red blossoming that follows a gunshot to the chest. By the time we’re thirty, we’ve watched thousands of people die and wouldn’t know what death really looks like if it walked through our front door.

Roger Michell’s Venus is not most movies and anyone curious to learn what death looks like has only to gaze upon the face of Peter O’ Toole as he gives a performance that’s brave, witty, thoughtful and very possibly his last. A once gloriously handsome movie star in the sunset of his life, O’ Toole might as well be playing a slightly less lucky version of himself. Maurice Russell likewise was once a well known actor and ladies man. Those days are a distant memory, however, as the story opens.

Maurice has settled into a routine of playing the occasional dying old man, attending to the demands of his failing body and checking the obituary column with a slowly dwindling group of acquaintances at a quiet London coffee shop. He’s closest to a hypochondriac drama queen (Leslie Phillips) whose flat he visits every day to enjoy a glass of whiskey and periodically to clip his friend’s toe nails. The routine is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the fellow’s grandniece, (Jodie Whittaker) an insolent teenager whose mother has washed her hands of her. She can’t cook, so Phillips has little interest in her. O’ Toole’s character, on the other hand, is entranced.

The two strike up an improbable alliance. He takes her to nightclubs and pays for drinks she’s not old enough to buy. He gives her jewelry. She tolerates his “theoretical interest” in her youthful flesh. The combined effect of old age and prostate surgery has left him impotent but his memory is intact. A gingerly negotiated whiff of her hair or caress of her hand leaves him wistfully intoxicated. It’s a poignant thing to witness. In the hands of almost any other actor, an ick factor would be all but unavoidable. In O’Toole’s, it’s pure poetry.

This is what death looks like–old men alone in shabby apartments. Sick friends. Friends lost forever. Doctor appointments. Medical treatments. Pills. The body’s irreversible rebellion. Goodbyes. To people. To places. To pleasures. Remembering everything and bracing for nothingness.

The amazing thing about Venus is that it’s brutally honest about all this but at the same time funny as hell. Something that would not be possible without a brilliant script and exceptionally gifted cast. The dialogue by screenwriter Hanif Kureishi deserves star billing and all the movie’s stars do moving, highly memorable work. Whittaker just graduated from drama school and yet holds her own with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, who takes a small part as Maurice’s ex-wife and elevates it into something exquisite.

Of course, the film belongs to its star. What a truthful, game performance he gives. I’m not sure anyone’s ever conveyed the bittersweetness of old age on screen so fully or with such fine humor. His character has lived long enough to have made his share of mistakes. He is not remotely without flaws. O’ Toole’s portrayal, on the other hand, approaches perfection

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