There are some truly genuine moments – a prostate exam, old friends going over the obituaries, the history sensed between Maurice and his ex-wife, and Maurice’s delight at beauty in both the flesh and natural things like the seaside. There are laugh-out-loud moments as well when the old friends humour each other with witty barbs and sarcasm associated with the inevitability of getting old. The film shows an old man who is still capable of making mistakes, still capable of recovering from them, who displays both the joy and repercussions of living your remaining days as an absurd man, free and honest, unbowing to rules and structures. Peter O’Toole is flawed, human and deeply memorable in the role.
Evening (directed by Lajos Koltia, screenplay by Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham) and Venus (directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Hanif Kureishi) were released on DVD in Australia in January 2008.
When you are in your final years, is there any point in regret? You have made choices in regards to love, lifestyle and friendship, you have betrayed or been wronged, and coincidences sometimes ended in the decline or death of others. The complex interrelations of human beings, as parents, siblings, friends, rivals and lovers and the tragedy of misdirected love are themes explored in both Venus and Evening.
While Venus focuses on the present philandering of a hedonistic old man, Evening delves into the past. Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) is on her death bed, feverishly muttering names from her past. This is a past well before the memories of her daughters Nina and Constance (Toni Collette and Natasha Richardson) whose potent recollections are of their mother leaving for gigs at dank nightclubs and bars. Nina becomes fixated by her mother’s mention of a ‘lost love’ Harris, and the parallels she sees in her own life. It inspires a fear of giving herself to someone who is not ‘the one’.
The sequences in the past begin as an innocent cinematic rainbow. A wealthy friend’s wedding, where Ann attempts to persuade the bride to go after true love. There is also the friend’s brother, her college chum, who is a poetic figure, speaking poignant truths that are tragically stung by the scent of alcohol. The sequences with Harris, the ‘lost love’ are less spectacular. While Clare Danes is vibrant, sparks fail to ignite the screen. There are also unnecessary fantasy sequences in the present, tied in with the reminiscent fever accompanying Ann’s sickness. They merely detract from the tone of the film. There are some poignant lines which are more than likely penned by Michael Cunningham, the brilliant novelist (The Hours, Specimen Days, A Home at the End of the World) who co-wrote the screenplay. One such is the dying woman’s ‘I thought there’d be so many chances’, reflecting on the hope of youth. And Meryl Streep’s stellar cameo as the best friend grown up, says this to her daughter: ‘We are mysterious creatures aren’t we? And at the end, so much of it turns out not to matter.’
The film mainly aims at realism, with small pockets of magic. It attempts a recognition of magic moments in life, but that we must also accept the flip-side in order to appreciate them. The film recognises that there is no such thing as a mistake, that we must accept the fallibilities of being human, and simply do the best we can. Be grateful, just like Lester Burnham.
Venus follows some of the same principles but is generally a funnier, warmer film. Maurice (Peter O’Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) are best mates in London, both aged actors. Ian is an attention-seeking old softie who becomes very frustrated when his niece comes to stay with him and will not cook his fish. Maurice, an intelligent, worldly, outspoken old perv steps in to show the young (often drunk) woman around. There is some discomfort throughout the relationship. Although Maurice is impotent, he delights in feminine beauty. He tries to teach Jessie, whom he titles ‘Venus’ (Jodie Whittaker) about sensuality through art. Both end up taking from each other selfishly, fulfilling their own confused needs. Maurice is a shameless hedonist, smoker, drinker and pleasure-seeker. Jessie is a headstrong young woman who has been burnt, and finds herself at an in-between.
The two films are both recommended viewing for a contemplative night at home. You’ll have a bit of a cry, a bit of a think about inevitability, but you’ll also feel optimistic. You don’t lose who you are through aging, these films say, you simply become a richer layer-cake of characteristics, idiosyncrasies, desires, and perhaps a few regrets that you will reflect on, and perhaps educate others about. Most of all, if you have friends, and great memories, you will be fine.