by RISHI AGRAWAL
This is not a love story. This is about obsession. Maurice, an aging actor (Peter O’Toole) becomes obsessed with Jessie, his friend’s grandniece (Jodie Whittaker), more a girl than a woman. He is too old to want sex, but instead, he is interested in looking and the occasional touch. Jessie uses Maurice’s obsessions against him, allowing him small favors: letting him kiss her neck, for example. She never lets it go too far, and resists when Maurice oversteps his bounds, often with physical force. Meanwhile, Maurice takes Jessie to plays and bars, and buys her gifts.
Peter O’Toole is getting a lot of publicity for his role, as the media notes that he’s “still got it” with a slight air of disbelief. When we are talking about an Actor of Peter O’Toole’s stature, there is no question that he can still act. It is not like he has forgotten how to perform. The film makes a point of saying that there are few roles for actors of Maurice’s age, and it is difficult not to draw parallels between Maurice and O’Toole. Not to detract from O’Toole’s performance at all, but screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, Intimacy) has written a role that allowed O’Toole to shine, and director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) probably had to just sit back and allow the performance to happen. Jodie Whittaker, born two decades after Lawrence of Arabia, holds her own in her film debut. This is no easy feat considering the cast also includes Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Griffiths (The History Boys).
The relationship between Maurice and Jessie is a strange one. Maurice feels obvious lust for Jessie. He even gets her a job posing in the nude for an art class, a gesture that is both somewhat kind (Jessie aspires to be a model) and perverse at the same time. Jessie, on the other hand, is repulsed by Maurice, but she does recognize his affection for her. And, as an audience, we are both disgusted by her behavior, taking advantage of Maurice’s kindness, but also warmed by the light she brings into Maurice’s life. This is not a healthy relationship, by any means. We are also reminded that this is not a love story when Jessie’s boyfriend (Bronson Webb) shows up.
It would be easy to think this is almost like G.B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion (perhaps more famous when made into the musical My Fair Lady). A cultured man runs into a young, crass woman and tries to refine her by teaching her about art and theater. However, it is arguable how much Jessie takes these “lessons” to heart. In the end, we do see changes in her character, but at that point, her transformation seems forced rather than organic.
The way I described the tense relationship between Maurice and Jessie, it might be easy to forget that the film is, at least on its surface, a comedy. Unfortunately, most of the humor comes from fairly familiar stereotypes: we have your dirty old men, and your grumpy old men, and your old men who complain about the youth of today, and old men speculating on how many lines they will get in their obituaries, etc.
There are also moments in the film that I am unsure what to do with. In one scene, Maurice and his friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) dance with each other. In another scene, Maurice slaps himself while in bed and says, “Come on, old man!” These are not the only moments in the film that seem strangely melodramatic and unnecessary.
We may not get the complete picture of either character, so perhaps it is fitting that they occasionally behave in expected ways: Maurice with his medications, ailments and lamentations on lost youth and Jessie with her naivete, crassness, and overreactions to seemingly trivial matters. The film, to its credit, does not always play into our expectations. In some ways, we could say that Michell has made a comedy that is not very funny, or an over-the-top drama, but I prefer to think of this film as two intersecting character sketches. The rest of the film might be superfluous, but the best parts of the movie are good enough that it hardly matters.