December and May
Published: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 12:06 a.m.
As a decrepit womanizer in "Venus," Peter O'Toole has a mouth that hangs open much of the time: a sign of advanced age, and the better to drool over the young woman he desires. He is meant to be a sly old goat not a dirty old man, so harmless that the film's creators actually make the poor guy impotent. But while O'Toole can be wonderfully charming as Maurice, an actor savoring his final lust, this film needs a reality check: there is a significant ick factor in watching Maurice leer.
'Notes on a Scandal'
Older people and the younger, at times under-age objects of their desires are appearing on screen in almost every combination, in literate films whose target audience seems to be aging, upscale baby boomers. But sometimes there is a huge gap between what the filmmakers intend and the way even a sympathetic audience may respond.
In the film of Alan Bennett's hit play "The History Boys," Hector, a teacher who gropes his male students, is meant to be benign, even heroic, but his behavior makes him seem venal and self-deluding.
Only the deliciously wicked "Notes on a Scandal," with Cate Blanchett as a teacher who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy, avoids creating unintentional distaste, not because this student-teacher relationship is O.K., but because the film is so lucid. "Notes" gets what these other movies don't: the difference between predatory sexual attention (unsavory) and mutual sexual attraction (very savory).
The distaste filmmakers should be worrying about has more to do with stalking than with age, but their confusion is evident in the ridiculous ploys they use to justify their older characters' actions. Early in "Venus," Maurice is about to be wheeled in for prostate surgery and his doctor announces, "There's a strong chance of impotence and incontinence."
A little late for that warning, isn't it? Still, the statement conveniently whisks away the question of sex in the interest of making Maurice's attentions to Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), who looks about 20, seem purely aesthetic. But when he gets her a job as a life model for an art class, he leers as he says the word modeling. She takes the job and asks him not to watch, so he climbs a ladder to spy through a window, a moment that "Venus" (directed by Roger Michell and written by the once-daring Hanif Kureishi) turns into a sitcom pratfall.
As their friendship grows, he responds to her suspicions by saying, "I'm impotent." Thanks for sharing. But despite spouting Shakespeare, Maurice is no Humbert Humbert poetically justifying his love.
And Jessie is no teasing Lolita, but she's not virginal or totally naïf either. Catching on that she can get her way by allowing Maurice small physical gestures, she says he can kiss her shoulder; he hovers over her neck in a way that inadvertently brings Dracula to mind.
"The History Boys" also assumes that the audience will embrace its lecherous hero as fully as the film's creators do. Faithfully directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the play on Broadway and in London, the movie shows the students rolling their eyes as Hector (Richard Griffiths) offers them rides home on his motorcycle, knowing that at some point he will reach behind for a feel. A gay student, disappointed at never being invited, is told his day will come. "You're too young still," another boy says.
This comment about youth echoes the hair-splitting Bennett has offered in many interviews. "It wouldn't be pedophilia because they're 17 or 18, but he is a pederast," he told a British newspaper, The Birmingham Post, about Hector and his students. "The boys are much more knowing and sophisticated than Hector is." They're not history boys, apparently, but history young-men-of-consensual-age.
Bennett tilts the issue even more in the work. When the headmaster learns of Hector's behavior, he says indignantly, "This is a school," then continues, "It's not normal," referring to the homoeroticism. In that one sentence the headmaster goes from being right to being a homophobe.
He is also a hypocrite whose unwanted attention to his young female secretary is just as bad as Hector's. But instead of demonizing both men, Bennett turns this evidence around to help Hector save his job. Another teacher, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), has no patience when Hector pathetically calls his gesture "a benediction," snapping, "A grope is a grope - it is not the Annunciation." Her minority voice may speak for the audience more than Bennett cares to know.
When "History Boys" was on Broadway, the critic John Lahr, filling in as host for Charlie Rose, asked Bennett whether he expected a different reaction in the United States, "America being that much more puritanical" than Britain. But while "Venus" and "History Boys" are British, it's not some mythical American priggishness that makes them confounding here. "Notes on a Scandal" displays no such confusion, and it's British too: directed by Richard Eyre and written with dark wit and a strong undertow of morality by Patrick Marber, from Zoe Heller's novel.
It is utterly clear that while Steven (Andrew Simpson) is only 15, he comes on to his beautiful teacher, Sheba (Blanchett), not the other way around. He even dupes her with a false sob story to get her sympathy. Sheba, struggling under the weight of a long marriage to an older man and two children, knows her relationship with the boy is wrong. That doesn't stop her, but she offers no lame Hector-like excuses. There are no innocents among the main characters, just a chorus of justifiably outraged minor ones, including Steven's mother.
"Notes on a Scandal" places creepiness where it belongs: not on sex and age themselves but on a predatory impulse, which comes not from Sheba but from her older colleague, Barbara (Judi Dench, practically a rediscovery as she breaks away from all those tiresome roles as lovable, feisty old ladies).
Barbara has had a disquieting obsession with Sheba from the start, insinuating herself into Sheba's life, manipulating her into staying close by promising to guard the secret of the affair. Here is another older-younger attraction, clearly depicted as sexual even if Barbara won't admit as much out loud. But while Maurice and Hector's sleaziness seeps through despite O'Toole's warmth and Bennett's wit, Barbara demonstrates that icky attention from an aging character can be bracing for a film, as long as the ick is intentional.
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