Venus: Screenplay by Hanif Kureishi; directed by Roger Michell
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attention upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?
(W B Yeats, ‘The Spur’)
Perhaps the most purely pleasurable aspect of Venus — a film which tracks a profoundly disturbing pursuit of pleasure — is its affectionate and sometimes mocking evocation of the actor’s life and actors’ London. Not since Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, in which Sammy rhapsodises about watching alternative comedy in Earls Court, strolling along Hammersmith tow-path and attending semiotics seminars at the ICA, have particular London localities been used to such striking effect. In Venus, the favoured setting is a greasy spoon in Kentish Town where three ageing, moderately successful thespians meet to bitch about each other’s past roles (‘he found your Polonius a little fruity’) and to speculate on the likely length of their obituaries. Aware that they are nearing the finishing line, and needing to feel they are part of a tradition, Maurice (Peter O’Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) make a pilgrimage to The Garrick. The interior is hushed, grandiose, silver spoon (and they can barely make it up the stairs) but Ian ‘loves this horrible place’ because it reminds him of his original ambition. Afterwards, Maurice suggests a visit to St Paul’s Covent Garden, the actors’ church, and as they examine the commemorative plaques (wondering if there will be space for them) one is reminded that the theatre is the most transient art form and stage actors the least remembered artists. Maurice’s first date with Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is at The Royal Court, where a typical Court play is in progress: foul-mouthed mingers pushing prams across the stage. In order to impress Jessie and earn some money, Maurice accepts a part in a Restoration drama being filmed in Kenwood House. Most memorably, Maurice stands centre stage in an empty Regent’s Park Theatre, with the voices of past productions echoing in his ears, and recites ‘To be or not to be’.
And there’s the rub. With Venus, Hanif Kureishi joins the pantheon of writers, including W B Yeats, Junichiro Tanizaki and Philip Roth, who have celebrated the incredible persistence of desire in the face of bodily decrepitude. Since this is a comedy, there is less of Yeats’ rage at the heart fastened to a dying animal, although the camera closes in on Maurice, sitting defeated on his bed, slapping his face hard in order to keep going: ‘Come … on … old … man!’ More frequently, the film dwells on the comic consequences of an old man’s infatuation with a young girl, as Maurice dodders around Top Shop, his arms heaped with clothes, or downs Bacardi Breezers in a throbbing bar. Despite lingering shots of Maurice looking up Jessie’s skirt or blissfully removing her shoes while she sleeps, it is a less fetishistic vision than Tanizaki’s in Diary of a Mad Old Man, the novel which provided the original inspiration for the screenplay. But as with Roth’s Dying Animal, Venus can be deeply discomforting and the viewer may well be unsure how to respond to this Professor of Pussy. At times Maurice appears urbane, avuncular and benign; at others he is strangely repellent and sinister. Moreover, as Kureishi points out in his essay on Tanizaki, ‘The Debt to Pleasure’, there is also the question of what it might mean for a young woman to be the object of erotic obsession. As Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) says with some disgust: ‘You’re always dripping Maurice’.
Like The Mother, the previous collaboration between director Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi, Venus has an odd couple at the centre. It is a film about relationships; about what people might want from, and be able to give, each other. Perhaps surprisingly the film accords almost equal importance to the friendship between Maurice and Ian; and to Maurice’s enduring affection for his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave). One of the film’s most original insights is that marriage, friendship and being in love, which are usually portrayed as being radically different kinds of relationship, are very similar. Maurice and Ian fuss and bicker like a married couple but when the music plays they fall into each others arms and dance. Maurice regularly visits his ex-wife for chats; on his last visit he cooks for her and they share a candlelit dinner and kiss. Jessie rapidly becomes not just the object of his desire but a companion on various trips out. In one scene she lies in the bath as he sits chastely outside listening to the painful story of her previous lover and consoling her. It would be difficult to classify exactly what each character is for the other but between them they sustain a life that is worth living.
Venus is a comedy not only because Maurice makes jokes as he is wheeled off on a trolley for his prostate operation, but also because the film affirms renewal and loyalty. Nothing lasts but nothing ends; just as the marriage is not over even after a divorce. It is about human persistence as much as what has perished: these actors never retire; they go on, even if they are only playing corpses. On the last jaunt, to the beach at Whitstable, the dialogue is almost Beckettian: ‘What can we do? Carry on.’ Although Maurice declares: ‘I am about to die and I know nothing about myself’, he is certain of one thing: he believes in giving pleasure: ‘That’s all I’d recommend to anyone’. We see his small acts of kindness, such as taking cakes round to his wife, and when Ian asks Maurice what he is doing with Jessie, he says: ‘It’s a very difficult thing but I am nice to her’. He takes her to the theatre, to the National Gallery, and introduces her to poetry; as in many of Kureishi’s previous works, the erotic and the pedagogic go hand in sweaty hand. The film is at times a touching meditation on art, desire and transience, epitomised by Maurice’s recital of Shakespeare’s sonnet: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ During the trip to the Royal Court, it is more than a joke when Maurice explains to Jessie that the play is not over: ‘It’s never the end when you go to the theatre.’
But Venus is also a troubling, and at times, disturbing film. In each of the relationships there is cruelty, jealousy, conflict and a considerable element of calculation. Although Maurice now believes in giving pleasure, his marriage ended because he was eager to pursue pleasure elsewhere, leaving his wife to bring up their three children alone. On his first visit he brings her much-needed cash but on the second he keeps his wad of money in his wallet in order to spend it on Jessie. Maurice and Ian not only bicker but actually come to blows and when Maurice collapses, Ian has no intention of taking care of him. Ian’s attitude to Jessie, although very funny (‘I’m screaming for euthanasia’), shows him to be a selfish, bad-tempered, old fool. Jessie trades brief and limited sexual favours in exchange for tattoos and earrings and on several occasions she pinches and punches Maurice when he is too forward. The sequence which shows Maurice waiting until nightfall in the cold for Jessie (who is with her boyfriend) or avidly sniffing her cunty fingers, offered in propitiation, suggest that the Shakespeare sonnet that is most relevant, despite Maurice’s impotence, is ‘Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action’.
Many American reviewers described Venus as a Lolita story. Although this seems to slightly miss the mark — Maurice is neither a rapist nor a murderer — it at least recognises that the film is a serious examination of sexuality and Maurice is a slightly sinister old man. English reviewers, in contrast, seem prudishly reluctant to discuss the sexual relationship between Maurice and Jessie. Tim Robey, in The Telegraph, comments ‘this is dubious territory, really’ and leaves it at that. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian observes that ‘The film is being taken very seriously indeed in the United States, whose pundits have perhaps misjudged its ironic, throwaway, self-deprecatory tone’. But the film is neither an indulgent star vehicle for Peter O’Toole (despite his brilliant performance) nor a piece of ‘wry and wintry Englishness’. I’m not sure that the film asks us to like Maurice, or to approve or disapprove of him, but to recognise that this is what desire is like: by turns blissful and ridiculous; ‘Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust’, to the very end. The fact that Maurice is old and impotent works to defamiliarise us, allowing us to see how bizarre sexuality actually is. Perhaps the response that Maurice most provokes is ambivalence.
Jessie too is not a straightforward character. According to Philip French in The Observer she is a ‘manipulative minx’: ‘She’s the unwanted daughter of Ian’s niece, and proves to be boozy, chain-smoking, idle, surly, exploitative, ignorant, foul-mouthed and lacking in dress sense.’ This sounds rather like what Kureishi has called ‘the new snobbery’, in which young working class women are condemned as empty consumers and ‘damned for their stupidity and inarticulacy’. Moreover, French entirely misses Jessie’s naivety and vulnerability (beautifully and unsentimentally conveyed by Jodie Whittaker) and the way that she develops in the film from being stroppy to self-assured and caring. Contrary to Tim Robey’s criticism of the film, we do learn about Jessie. She has no significant father; a mother who told her it was a mistake she ever had her, and who forced her to have an abortion; a boyfriend who was cruel to her. Jessie is at first unloved and unloving. Maurice’s motives are frequently selfish but his kindness and interest in her — and the fact that he sees her as desirable — change how she sees herself. He’s both a lecher and a father figure; however uncomfortable that might make us, it is not unrecognisable.
Although Jessie’s development is convincing and of central importance, the film shows fairly traditional roles for women. Maurice praises his ex-wife as a good mother (and Vanessa Redgrave invests her self-sacrifice with dignity and sweetness); Jessie’s transformation from minger into a confident young woman is first signalled when she accompanies Maurice to the seaside, like a good daughter. Their conversation in front of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery suggests that there are basically two fulfilling ways to be a woman. Maurice says: ‘For most men a woman’s body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see.’ And that the most beautiful thing a woman will ever see is ‘her first child.’ At the end of the film, Jessie achieves her apotheosis by throwing off her robe and posing as Venus, turning herself into an obscure object of desire.
In 1914, Mary ‘Slasher’ Richardson, the militant suffragette, went to The National Gallery, produced a meat chopper from her muff and smashed the glass of the Rokeby Venus. Although it has been expertly restored, her buttocks still bear faint scars. It is a shameful and ridiculous episode in the annals of feminism; certainly puritanical and possibly envious. Looking at Venus, her beautiful backside facing the viewer, while she herself looks in the mirror, prompts many questions. Is she, as Nicholas Penny once debated, trying to see her cunt? Is the hazy, rather coarse face in the mirror meant to show that Venus is not as beautiful as she may at first appear? Is it a misogynistic message about female narcissism? Is her face hidden to suggest that she is unknowable? Does the painting answer the question what do women want? A child and a mirror! Or, as the film Venus suggests, is it about the way women are never beautiful to themselves and only become so when they are loved?
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Review – Venus: Screenplay by Hanif Kureishi; directed by Roger Michell’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2007/thomas.html. Accessed on [date of access].