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15 December

Soviet spacecraft Venera 7 lands on Venus, 1970

On this day in 1970, the Soviet Union landed a spacecraft on Venus. The Venera 7 had been launched from Earth on 17 August 1970 and arrived in the proximity of Venus nearly four months later. At this point the spacecraft began its descent, retaining the rocket that had powered it to Venus to use as a heat shield until the atmosphere was dense enough for the use of a parachute, at which point the rocket was jettisoned. At 60km up the parachute deployed, but it failed. The probe hit the surface at a speed of 16.5 metres per second (about 36mph) and was damaged. The scientists initially believed that the probe was kaput but in fact it was still transmitting data, albeit rather weakly. However, after 23 minutes it did fall silent. The only data it sent back were atmospheric readings (97% carbon dioxide) and the surface temperature (475ºC). As the name suggests, Venera was the seventh of a total of 16 probes to Venus, the first having been launched in 1961 and the last in 1984. Ten landed on Venus, the first being the ill-fated Venera 7. Other firsts included the Venera 4 (first man made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet, 1967), Venera 9 (first to return images from another planet, 1975), Venera 15 (first to perform high-resolution radar mapping of Venus, 1983). Because of the incredibly high temperatures of the surface of Venus, the life of a probe on the planet’s surface can be measured in minutes, though by the time the USSR was launching the final probes, a couple of hours had become the norm. If, like me, you find yourself astonished by your own ignorance of one of the greatest space exploration programs ever devised by humans, this website is a mine of useful information

Venus (2006, dir: Roger Michell)

What happens when an old guy fall for a young girl? Not a middle aged guy and a 20something, but a properly old man and a girl young enough to be his grand-daughter? That’s the story that Venus tells, with a great degree of subtlety and facing up to the charge that it’s in dirty old man territory. Peter O’Toole is the old guy, a man taken aback by his feelings for the gutter-mouthed great-niece of an old friend (Leslie Phillips). Jodie Whittaker plays the girl, a teenager who sucks up the warmth that the old guy is giving off, increasingly aware that it’s more than just affection, and advancing towards it because she’s been starved of love by her family. He wants sex, of course, though he’s probably too old to do it; and after a while she stops feeling disgusted and starts to realise that in fact she holds all the cards. And how she makes him sweat, and ache. This is what the bulk of the film is about, the dance around the possibility/impossibility of it all, with O’Toole laying on the pathos in great big actorly slabs – he’s playing a vain old actor, appropriately – while Whittaker does that amazing thing that great actresses can do, regularly pulling off emotional 180º about-faces to confound him, and amaze us. It’s a comedy, with dark pools. Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell had been here before, with The Mother, the 2003 drama about an older woman (Anne Reid) and a younger man (Daniel Craig). And the duo would complete the thematic threesome about love among the wrinklies with 2013’s Le Week-End, about a married couple (Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan) raking over the embers of their passion in Paris. And in all of them Roger Michell’s ability to get credible emotion out of his actors – not that any of those names actually have a problem there either – provides an extra wallop. And in this film especially, whose subject matter is wandering perilously close to uncomfortable territory, that really helps.

Why Watch?

  • The great support cast – Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths, Vanessa Redgrave
  • The director of Notting Hill working with less photogenic material
  • O’Toole’s eighth Oscar nomination and his last great role
  • Because Whittaker is so good

Venus – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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