Directed by Roger Michell
Written by Hanif Kureishi
Starring Peter O’Toole, Jodie Whittaker, and Leslie Phillips
Available to stream on Netflix
Jessie: Is her name Venus?
Maurice: No. Venus is a goddess. Accompanied by Eros, she creates love and desire in us mortals, leading often to foolishness and despair. The usual shit. For most men, the woman’s body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see.
Jessie: What’s the most beautiful thing a girl sees? Do you know?
Maurice: Her first child.
The above exchange is a sly nod to the entire character development of this movie. Maurice is a once-famous London actor who is now mostly taking jobs playing corpses. But he is far from corpse-like. To call him spry would be a grand understatement. He is smooth, confident, and more often than not, kinda horny. Maurice is a man obsessed with youth. There is a hole in his life that must be filled (he would make a crude joke about that last statement).
Enter Jessie, the niece of Maurice’s best friend Ian. One night before a theatre performance, Ian falls asleep and Maurice tries his moves on the young Jessie. He invites her to the play, and though she is a little weirded out, something compels her to go. This begins one of the oddest and most intriguing screen romances I’ve ever seen, if you can call it romance. I’m still unsure. What I am sure of is that each character fills a gap in the other’s life. Maurice needs a young thang to hang on his arm and Jessie needs to be flattered and fluffed up.
Perhaps I’m making them sound too simple. These are complicated characters, with complicated lives. Their needs are formed by insecurity, heartbreak, and guilt. The story by Hanif Kureishi does a brilliant job of exploring these things, through intimate conversations and character beats. Peter O’Toole is stellar in these moments. You sense a real piece of him in the character, and it could be that it wasn’t so far off from how he really felt as an aging man. Jodie Whittaker, making her feature debut, is a perfect counter to O’Toole. She displays all the naivety and angst of youth, and she does it so honestly, with such realism, that I promise she’ll remind you of at least one person you know. And oh what empathy that creates.
Following their conversation on beauty, Maurice tells Jessie this: “The model for Venus was a real woman just like you. That’s what caused all the fuss.” I think that line speaks volumes to their relationship. Watching the movie you realize Jessie isn’t traditionally beautiful, she isn’t very smart, and she isn’t even a good person. And yet, Maurice falls in love with her. Why? Well, it’s like he said. She’s real.