Late in the brisk British comedy Venus, Peter O'Toole—playing a legendary actor not unlike, well, Peter O'Toole—walks down to the run-down London park where he used to perform Shakespeare. Director Roger Michell spins the camera around O'Toole from a low angle, holding on the way his hollowed face still looks grand silhouetted against a grey sky. The shot turns O'Toole into a monument, which is the position he also occupies in the film, as well as just outside it. Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi know, as the audience knows, that in the real world, O'Toole is frail and probably won't make many more movies. So Venus is pitched partly as a fond farewell to a beloved artist, and his whole beautiful generation.
And it isn't just O'Toole. Vanessa Redgrave shows up in Venus, playing O'Toole's long-neglected ex-wife, and veteran British actors Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths join him at the pub every day, to scan the obituaries for fallen friends and speculate over whether they'll get more column inches when they go. The age of the British theater and movie star that began with Laurence Olivier—and continued through Richard Burton and O'Toole and onward—is fast concluding, and while a lot of Venus is dedicated to isn't-it-funny-when-the-elderly-swear? shenanigans and why-don't-these-young-folks-respect-their-history? moralizing, it's hard to deny Michell and Kureishi's central point, that the vitality of a whole culture is draining away one funeral at a time. And no one under 25 seems to care.
To drive the point home, Venus gives O'Toole the crass 17-year-old Jodie Whittaker to ogle and instruct, though she's mainly interested in leveraging his lust into jewelry and dresses. The movie is both cutesy and tough, getting too-easy laughs from O'Toole's erudite lechery, then pushing in close to show that his attraction to Whittaker is no joke, and her callousness no act. Even as Venus ambles toward a somewhat predictable conclusion, it lingers on O'Toole's desperate need to connect with Whittaker, maybe to atone for a lifetime of mistreating women, and maybe because he's anxious to mistreat one more. He's a rogue to the end, but a regretful one. When he tells Whittaker that the naked female form is the most beautiful thing most men will ever see, while for women it's the face of their first child, the sigh he lets out hints that he wishes, for the sake of his legacy, it had been the other way around.