Director: Roger Michell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Recently, on the occasion of Peter O’Toole’s birthday, my blog partner Rod announced on Facebook that O’Toole is his favorite living actor. One certainly doesn’t argue with favorites, as they are personal choices, but I think anyone would be hard put to disagree with his choice in any case. Anyone, male or female, who didn’t fall in love with Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia must have been very jaded indeed. His portrayal of the rather naive and vulnerable adventurer made almost mad by his experiences in North Africa is a performance for the ages. Since Lawrence, the prolific O’Toole has built up an eclectic body of work on film, in television, and as a voice actor for animated films that shows his range; his creative energy, still undimming at the age of 78 (he’s filming two movies this year and is in preproduction on a third); and his continued popularity with both those who make movies and those who watch them.
In 2006, O’Toole tackled a character very close to himself—an elderly actor of renown—who takes one more shot at love with a barely legal girl. While the stretch of his skills is not so great, the fearlessness needed to expose what certainly must be real parts of himself as an elderly man was just as great an achievement as in Lawrence. He is no longer naive, but he is just as vulnerable and at least as seductive.
Maurice (O’Toole) accompanies his actor friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) from the hospital where he has just been discharged to Ian’s flat. They shop to restock Ian’s home with food and essentials. When they reach Ian’s spotless and beautifully appointed apartment, Ian informs Maurice that his great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) will be coming to look after him. “I bought a bell to keep by my bedside,” Ian cheerfully informs Maurice, and gives the obnoxious object a tinkle.
The day of Jessie’s arrival, Ian runs to the diner where Maurice and another friend (Richard Griffiths) are having tea and says the girl is a complete nightmare. “I bought a nice piece of halibut, and she didn’t know how to cook it!” Ian despairs. Maurice decides to accompany Ian home and meet the she-devil herself. Maurice gets Ian settled and offers to make him a cup of tea. He moves through the familiar flat where he has been a visitor for decades and slowly passes an open doorway. Sitting in it like a scruffy black cat is Jessie. Her eyes are thick with liner, her clothes are barely there, and she wears the insolent scowl of most people her age. Maurice is intrigued.
He stops by the apartment again, and this time asks Jessie a little about herself. She wants to be a model. She’s not model attractive, so Maurice asks if she has a fallback plan. “Don’t you think I can be a model?” she spits at him. He backpedals. He has learned in his long life how to smooth over his thoughtless insults—he has, no doubt, made many. He says he can probably help her because he knows a lot of people. “You famous or something?” Jessie asks. “A bit,” Maurice demurs. He says his full name. She doesn’t recognize it.
True to his word, Maurice gets her a modeling job. She will be posing nude for his art class. Well, we saw this seduction coming, and now Jessie’s in on it, too. She agrees, but only if Maurice leaves the class. He tries to position himself at the transom of a door to spy on her, but ends up falling through and knocking over several easels. The comic timing of the scene, and Maurice’s guilty-but-innocent response are priceless, and shows O’Toole’s comedic chops very well. After class, Maurice takes Jessie to the National Gallery, where they study Velasquez’s Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus). He tells her that Venus was a goddess who inspired people to love. He said that a real model posed for the goddess, just like she is donig. From that moment on, he calls her “Venus” and is, too, inspired to love.
The delicacy of this drama could have been spoiled at any moment. We’re looking at what most of us would call a dirty old man. But O’Toole shows us that the old have a lot to offer in the way of love and the experience to know how to offer it. Yes, Maurice was a ladies’ man, and we see his routine. He plies Jessie with gifts and impresses her with a limousine ride and the chance to be on a movie set as he plays a bit part in a costume drama. But he really does care. He becomes faint on the set, but one look at her concerned face lifts him up, and he carries on as a man renewed.
For her part, Whittaker plays Jessie as a young girl who can’t exactly explain why she’s so turned on by this relic. She gives him small sexual favors—three kisses on her shoulder, permission to smell her neck—and becomes very cross if he tries for more. But his kindness to her, particularly when she shares the secret of a first love and a forced abortion, wins her heart as well.
The supporting cast of elderly actors, including Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice’s wife, bring the world of the aged to life in a plausible way. The concern with obituaries and raising all-too-frequent toasts to the newly dead, the long-standing relationships that are as much a part of life as breathing itself, the infirmities, hospitals, healthcare workers—this is what we all face should we reach our golden years. These images are not often seen on the screen, and very few directors take up this subject with any regularity. The master of the silver-haired screen is Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox, whose A Woman’s Tale is the pinnacle of the genre.
For his part, director Roger Michell keeps the film in perfect balance. His touch for romance has been well developed on such films as Persuasion (1995) and Notting Hill (1999). But it is to honored screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (his novel Intimacy was given a first-rate adaptation by director Patrice Chéreau) I tip my hat. This is a beautifully written screenplay, both witty and wise, that deserved to be honored with the talents of O’Toole, Redgrave, and the rest of the uniformly fine cast. Make time to see it.