VENUS directed by Roger Michell, written by Hanif Kureishi, with Peter O'Toole, Jodie Whittaker and Vanessa Redgrave. An Alliance Atlantis release. 95 minutes. Opens Friday (January 19). For venues and times, see Movies, page 75. Rating: NNNN
You can't accuse Hanif Kureishi of false modesty.
"In the past 25 years," he boasts, "the two most culturally significant things in England were the publication of Midnight's Children and the release of My Beautiful Laundrette. They signalled that European cinema and literature had changed."
Well, yes. He's got a point. Kureishi who wrote the screenplay for Laundrette and Salman Rushdie were capturing the Indo-Anglo experience long before the Monica Alis and Gurinder Chadhas spiced things up.
But it's his smug delivery assured, clipped, with a nasal finality that takes me aback. Arrogant doesn't begin to describe it. Or maybe he's just being honest.
"Charm is off-putting, isn't it?" he laughs. "Any fucker can be charming. But being really horrible is wonderful."
He's talking here about the title character in his script for Venus. She's a vain, ignorant working-class woman named Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) who captures the frail but still beating heart of aging thesp Maurice (Peter O'Toole).
"Jessie's vulgarity is so unselfconscious, and I think Maurice is charmed by that lack of charm, by that directness."
Kureishi could be talking about himself here, too. I've got to admit, speaking with the man at the Toronto Film Festival is bloody entertaining.
He came up with the idea for the script from his weekly Friday breakfasts with a group of much older writers, directors and actors.
"We sit around for a couple of hours and everybody moans that they haven't slept well in 20 years, or they talk about these really good blue or yellow pills," says Kureishi. "I thought I'd love to write about the friendship of older men. But you need to throw in a bomb, a girl. You always need a girl."
In some ways, Venus is a gender-reversed companion to Kureishi and director Roger Michell's 2003 film The Mother, about a plain older woman getting it on with a much younger man (future Bond Daniel Craig).
"The world is full of all kinds of relationships. There's nothing odd about any of them," he says. "In Venus, it's a sort of parental relationship. At the end of the film, Venus finds the Vanessa Redgrave character, who is obviously like a mother. It's really a story about a child reclaiming her parents, and the parents sending the child out into the world."
Both The Mother and Venus are pretty uniformly white. But Kureishi says he's working on a long novel about the immigrant experience, as well as a short film about "a guy who videotapes beheadings."
Being of Pakistani heritage in a conflicted, complicated global world is, he says, both fascinating and disturbing.
"You have to think all the time about who you are, what you think, your position on Bush, Lebanon, Israel, education.
"These are hard things to deal with, and they don't just happen internally. They're essentially a conversation you're having with the society in which you live."
VENUS(Roger Michell) Rating: NNNN
Venus gets most of its gravitas from the disconnect between Peter O'Toole's gaunt face and frail body and his mischievous, indefatigable spirit. He plays Maurice, an aging actor intrigued by Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the sullen, chip-eating grandniece of one of his old acting cronies.
What follows is a variation on the Pygmalion story without any phony contemporary epiphanies about life, love and learning. The film celebrates sensuality without being icky about the May-December pairing, and it luxuriates in the gravelly, self-dramatizing notes of O'Toole's distinctive voice.
Director Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi aren't afraid of creating chararacters who are flawed but real. Besides O'Toole's masterful turn, look for a small, understated performance by Vanessa Redgrave as his former wife.