Michael Powell’s “Age of Consent”
Pros:young Mirren, not-young Mason, Godfrey, backdrops
Cons: never ignites
British filmmaker Michael Powell (1905–1990) was consigned to the living hell of being unable to secure funding to make movies after the shocks delivered by his very nasty 1960 ” I find that movie quite repellant and the final Archers project “”/”Night Ambush” (1957) slack. I can remember a time (the early-1980s) in which his earlier work was being rediscovered, including a screening of “A Matter of Life and Death”/“Stairway to Heaven” (1946) was screened with Powell present at a San Francisco International Film Festival event.
It was James Mason (star of Odd Man Out, A Star Is Born, Lolita), who coproduced the movie, that managed to get “Age of Consent” (1969) filmed on a Great Barrier Reef island (Dunk). Mason played a successful painter, Bradley Morahan, nauseated by the art world and those whose purchases of his work supported him. His going off to a South Pacific island makes not only film viewers but also characters in London (or is it Sydney? or New York?) think of Gauguin going off to Tahiti. (BTW, there are only white people on the island to which Morahan goes, though something of a savage who will inspire him.)
Morahan unloads a lot of supplies when the mail boat (a rowboat with a motor) piloted by the shirtless (throughout the movie) Ted Farrell (Harold Hopkins [Gallipoli]) drops him off. A seeming water sprite hiding under the dock, Cora Ryan (Helen Mirren in her first screen role, long before playing Inspector Jane Tennison, or “The Queen”), helps herself to some supplies (including half a dozen eggs, though her alcoholic grandmother [Neva Carr-Glynn] raises chickens).
Morahan paints both the inside and outside of his cabin, which intrigues Cora. She is trying to save up a hundred dollars to go to the mainland (Brisbane) and become a beautician (!?) and agrees to pose for Morahan. The first time, she goes to sleep on the beach while clothed and he makes a sand portrait of her nude. Soon enough she is posing nude and he is exclaiming about her stimulating a new ability to see, as he sketches and paints her over and over.
The paradise for the painter and his muse is complicated by the grandmother who accuses him of statutory rape (not that they are doing the deed, but being naked around a man is proof enough for the old lush). Morahan pays her some hush money. More disruptive is a visit from Nat Kelly (Irish actor Jack MacGowran) fleeing alimony and seeking a loan of $300 from his old drinking pal. Morahan is annoyed (with very good reason) by the intruder, even before Nat steals money and watercolors). Nat being raped (his word for it) by a widow (Andonia Katsaros) was, I think, supposed to be comic relief, though I find it distastefully misogynist.
Monahan rarely wears more than shorts, Ted never does, and Nat is first seen by the widow skinny-dipping. It is the full-figured (hardly hoyden and seven years older than Cora is supposed to be) who is nude often. In a DVD bonus feature interview, she says she thinks she was the first actress displaying full-frontal nudity in a non-porn movie. Her breasts and derrière are much exposed in the movie, but I don’t think there was any FULL-frontal nudity. The prints were hacked up in both Australia and the US, and perhaps something was lost?
The restored print is gorgeous, with strong colors as shot by German cinematographer Hannes Staudinger (who had shot Stanley Kubrick’s harrowing black-and-white “Paths of Glory” (1957); I have not seen anything else he shot).
The gamelan-inflected music score by Peter Sculthorpe was jettisoned by Columbia in the movie’s American release (along with cutting much of the nudity and the opening credits painting). I like it and am glad that it is restored for the DVD. Also he has some interesting things to say about the movie; he was on site during the shooting.
Mirren was already compelling way back then as her feral character (how someone spending so much time in the ocean can be so dirty is something of a puzzle to me!) gains confidence, rebelling at the oppression of her grandmother and knocking Ted down a peg or two. Hippie era though it was, Cora aspires to respectability and to join society (dropping out is not an option, nor is turning on, and her grandmother (and, presumably, mother) have made alcohol quite uninviting a path to blotting out pain). (BTW, the novel by Norman Lindsay on which the movies was based was published in 1938, clearly not hippie-influenced! I’d guess that Powell wished he could go off and do his work, though taking film crews to remote islands was the closest approximation possible for a film director.)
In addition to interesting retrospects by Mirren, Sculthorpe, editor Anthony Buckley, Powell’s son Michael (who was production chief), and producer Michael Pate, the DVD has a commentary track (that I have not played) laid down by and Kent Jones (Ian Christie did the commentary track for “Stairway to Heaven”), ten minutes of recollections about underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor (who later worked on the more widely seen movies “Jaws” and “The Blue Lagoon”), and a video blurb by Martin Scorsese (whose usual editor is Powell’s widow (35 years his junior), Thelma Schoonmaker (she has won Oscars for editing his “Raging Bull,” “The Aviator” and “The Departed”). Scorsese has long championed the films of Michael Powell (slighting the contributions of Emeric Pressburger IMO). I remember an enthusiastic contribution to the Criterion DVD of “The Tales of Hoffman” (1951) from Scorsese, and he also provides a video blurb on the “Stairway to Heaven” DVD.
The DVD of “Age of Consent” has convinced me that it is a shame that Powell was not able to make more movies (“Ill-Met by Moonlight” and “Peeping Tom” had previously obstructed feeling so). He certainly wanted to, and both Scorsese and Buckley attest that he continued to develop projects that no one would finance.
Both “Stairway to Heaven” and “Age of Consent” look great. Their ideas are not as arresting, but they also contain some fine acting. I realize that the scrounging lowlife Nat Kelly is supposed to be obnoxious and disruptive of the idyll; Jack MacGowran is perhaps too good at playing the role? (Mirren recalls the kindness of Powell and Mason to her on her first movie and that Powell was very solicitous of the crew, but less than kind to MacGowran, though not going into any detail). The movie does not need the broad comedy, having more subtle comedy from Mirren and Michael Boddy as the local policeman, who is more savvy than he looks, and by Monahan’s dog Godfrey (who has perhaps the best scene in the movie).