This could have a groan to watch, even pervy (it actually is in places) but it's still an absolute gem.
While Peter O'Toole grabs the lion's share of attention, there are many other reasons why this so works. One of them is a stunning turn from Leslie Phillips who up until now has been all but a National joke in Britain (in the nicest way - he's been acting since the Fifties in light-hearted and often bawdy British comedies). The two together are never anything less than brilliant. Phillips knows he's up against real acting talent, but every time he matches it with his most brilliant and layered performance ever. And he's subtle too. Their scenes together are worth their weight in gold.
Part of the reason is the fantastically funny, observational and touching script from Hanif Kureish which should have pulled a statue. There's a scene where two nurses are chatting over Peter O'Toole - one sticking a needle in his arm in some god-forsaken National Health Service room - and they just don't see him - he might as well not be there - why - because he's old - and therefore doesn't count anymore. It immediately cuts to him in the next scene at home - head lowered - sat on the side of a bed - hurting at the realisation of his aged fate. Then he slaps his own face three times and tells himself to "get up you old fu**er" and get on with life! O'Toole can suggest so much with even a glance. Both scenes are crushingly sad, but say so much by using so little. It's fantastic writing.
There's another scene with Richard Griffiths (superb British actor who played Uncle Monty in Withnail & I) and Leslie Phillips; they're in a London cafe the three dotty cumudgens frequent, when Phillips bemoans the fact that his new girl lodger Jessie (played by Judie Whittaker - dubbed "Venus" by O'Toole after visiting the famous painting in The National Gallery) has drunk all his best booze and eaten him out of house and home. He's frantic. The two boys react - not with sympathy and tea - but by relentlessly taking the piss out of his overreaction! It's just hysterically funny, well paced and packed full of wisdoms.
Maurice's (O'Toole) reaction to Venus is entirely different. She, of course, with her short skirts, Northern accent and lip that knows no subtlety - represents life, youth, woman. And for a man who's been in love with them all from the moment he could ditch his nappy and chase them down the street - she's irresistable. Their romance at-a-distance is slowly boiled and admittedly at times, it seems highly unlikely, but they play it so well together, you believe it. There are slightly pervy moments as I said and awkward scenes where he can't help himself and gets physical, and she calls him "forward". But he is - as a man - dying - and he can't stand it - he has so much to give still, if only someone will stop looking at him as old, and instead see him as a viable human being. It's all beautifully handled, insightful and ballsy - because these things should be/need to be said and addressed.
The music is provided by the lovely Corrine Bailey Rae, a British soul singer (like a softer version of Tracy Chapman meets Mica Paris) - soulful songs and strumming moments pepper the nicely used London locations. Later scenes with his long-suffering wife Vanessa Redgrave are genuinely touching too - another great actress adding class to an already classy project.
There are times when O'Toole looks ill, that this maybe his last role, but then that voice comes through, or he does an "act-or's turn", or he smiles at Leslie Phillips and hugs him - and lifetimes of friendship come through. In another scene Phillips' character Ian says as they sip whiskey in a gentleman's club reminiscing on their pasts, "I love this horrible place. It reminds me, of what I wanted to become." He admires Maurice and is jealous of him, but can say it without fear, because they're real friends. Sipping whiskey and clipping toenails!
Of course the central relationship between Maurice & Jessie goes to crap and a series of events threaten to wreck it. We're not looking at traditional happy endings here, but compromises - as all living is. It ends as it began - on a beach - with the waves of the free sea lapping on the shore - fresh and untamable.
I loved this film. Please don't let the subject matter put you off.
In one particularly touching scene, O'Toole's character Maurice, quotes Shakespeare to Venus - and to finish this review - so shall I.
"So long as men shall live and eyes shall see...
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee".
Put this movie high on your rental/to buy list.