The film starts with a focus on the friendship of two ageing actors bantering away their last days over scotch and tea in cafés and NHS waiting rooms. The anxious hypochondriac Ian (played by the adorable Leslie Phillips), invites his niece Jessie to come and look after him. Within hours he's "begging for euthanasia", as a sassy, unhappy, cultureless teenager slops all over his flat, complete with scowls, tracksuit and pot noodles. Ancient ladies' man Peter O’Toole, as Ian's best friend Maurice, however, sees immediately through the microwave meals to the glowing young flesh beneath.
It's very well-cast and still better acted. The loyalties of the past (between Maurice and Ian; between Maurice and his ex-wife (a bitter, forgiving Vanessa Redgrave) gleam like tarnished awards through the grimness of the present (hospital check ups, no work, never enough money). But it's emphatically not a simple feelgood film. The (pristinely inexplicit) intimate scenes between Maurice and Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) are really quite uncomfortable. "I’m going to die soon, Venus. May I touch your hand?" But they're meant to be. That tension between threat, pity and sheer inappropriateness is part of what is being examined, and it's the film's main success that it manages to resolve this tension without capitulation or obvious cliché.
The one flaw is the occasionally uncertain cinematography: there's an uneasily rapid turnover of camera angles and a certain nervousness in the presentation of the set-pieces. "What can we do here to express courage and despair? OK guys, how about a few seconds of a waltz in St Paul's? Great, great. But not too long now or they'll get bored and think Leslie's gay." This jumpiness lets down some great ideas and some marvellous acting (for example said waltz in St Paul's). But altogether it's brave, unusual and worth seeing. It follows the P.G. Wodehouse recipe for the kind of comedy he didn't write: "going right down deep into real life and not caring a damn."