There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Venus, a 2006 British dramedy written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell, starring Peter O’Toole as a frail old actor and Jodie Whittaker as the feisty young woman who becomes his companion. O’Toole plays Maurice, who’s spending the waning days of his life reminiscing about the glory days of British stage and cinema with his fellow aged thespians. Whittaker plays Jessie, the grand-niece of Maurice’s friend Ian. When she meets Maurice, Jessie initially sees a financial upside in letting an impotent old man flirt with her. But soon, she wonders if he’s taking advantage, too, as he drags her around London and imparts his wisdom. A gentle character sketch that doesn’t over-stress any particular point about gender, generational, or class divides, Venus is ultimately an elegiac meditation on the many choices that people come to regret.
Why watch now?
Because Whittaker begins her run as the Thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who this Sunday night, on BBC One and BBC America.
As even casual science fiction followers likely know, the character of the Doctor is an alien Time Lord who periodically “regenerates” into an entirely new body. As far back as the 1980s, Doctor Who devotees started wondering whether the character could ever be played by a woman. Idle speculation evolved into an outcry when Russell T. Davies helped revive the series in 2005, and then again when one of his writers, Steven Moffat, took over in 2009. During the two producers’ respective tenures, the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Doctors were played by a succession of men: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi. In 2008, Davies frustrated some fans in an interview when he suggested that handing the leading role off to an actress would just be a way to “placate” those who were clamoring for the change and that it would require parents to have embarrassing conversations with their kids about “genitalia.”
Davies has since said he’s “grown up” when it comes to this issue. When Moffat handed control of Doctor Who over to Chris Chibnall, the producer introduced Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor in the 2017 Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time.” The hiring was first announced after the Wimbledon finals in July 2017, with Chibnall (who’d worked with Whittaker on the crime drama Broadchurch) calling her his first choice. When the new season begins this Sunday, fans have been told to expect a version of the Doctor who’s high-spirited, fast-talking, warm-hearted, and funny.
Having this particular part played by a woman matters for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that the British TV, film, and theater business have traditionally been somewhat paternalistic. It’s not that producers in the UK don’t respect the long line of talented women who’ve risen through the ranks or that the industry has completely lacked creative women in power. But one of the main themes of Venus is that the men of Maurice’s generation — and, by extension, O’Toole’s — over-romanticized their 1960s heyday when they’d get blind drunk and chase skirts. Their macho camaraderie was often exclusionary and damaging.
So while Maurice can’t help but ogle Jessie, he does so with a tacit acknowledgment that his lechery over the decades has come at a price. Venus is partly about how lust can inspire masterpieces. But as Maurice looks back on his life, he thinks about the warmer and deeper relationships he missed out on because he was fixated primarily on sex, booze, and work.
Who it’s for
Anglophilic theater geeks and Whittaker-boosters.
Maurice isn’t O’Toole’s final role. He hung on for seven more years after Venus and appeared in a few more movies and TV series. But the film is designed as a proper farewell to a legend. The cast includes O’Toole’s peers Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Phillips, and Richard Griffiths. And part of what’s so poignant about the story is that Maurice and his friends frequently gather at the pub to read the obituaries, wondering how (or even whether) they’ll be remembered when they die. The longer they live, the more likely it is that the generation in charge of showbiz and the media will no longer have any firsthand recollection of these actors who once breathed the same air as Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton.
But while Venus takes a few shots at kids like Jessie for being ignorant of their history, Whittaker is so terrific in the film that it’s hard to reduce her character to a mere symbol. To Maurice, she represents beauty, vitality, and his own obsolescence. She inspires him, arouses him (as much as is physically possible), and aggravates him. But Whittaker as Jessie is a complicated young woman with her own opinions and her own potential. Her performance announces her as an actor who belongs alongside the greats.
Where to see it
Tubi.tv, where it’s streaming free with ad support. For still more Whittaker, Netflix has the complete run of the grim British mystery series Broadchurch (in which she plays a mother whose profound grief reshapes her entire life) plus the fan-favorite Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You” (with Whittaker as the wife of a destructively distrustful man).