Saturday 18 March 2023

Age of Consent (1969)

In 1960 one of Britain’s most distinguished and admired film directors, Michael Powell, turned himself into an outcast with a movie called Peeping Tom. It’s now recognised as a masterpiece but at the time British critics could not accept the level of violence and the perverse sexuality and they could neither understand nor accept what Powell was trying to do. Powell ended up in a kind of exile in Australia, where he contributed enormously to the rebirth of the Australian film industry. His 1966 comedy They’re a Weird Mob was a huge hit in Australia. If you’ve never seen this movie I urge you in the strongest possible terms not to. It’s embarrassing and hopelessly dated and completely unfunny and generally very annoying. But it was a success and proved that Australians would pay money to see Australian movies.

Three years later Powell bounced back with another Australian movie, a movie calculated to make him even more of a pariah in the eyes of British critics than Peeping Tom had done. The movie was Age of Consent, based on a scandalous novel by the notorious Australian artist Norman Lindsay (on whom the 1994 movie Sirens was based). It was controversial at the time and was savagely cut by censors in various countries, due to what was by the standards of 1969 a quite considerable amount of nudity. Surprisingly it was apparently released uncut in Australia. It also ran into major problems with Columbia Pictures who insisted on commissioning a new score. They were also unamused by the opening credits sequence featuring a painting of a nude Helen Mirren as the Columbia lady with the torch.

Bradley Morahan (James Mason) is an internationally successful Australian artist living in New York. He makes plenty of money, but he feels that he’s lost touch with the reasons he became a painter in the first place. He exiles himself to a remote island of the Great Barrier Reef in north Queensland, in the hope that he will be able to rediscover his muse. Which he does, in the form of an almost feral girl named Cora (Helen Mirren).

Morahan has become an outsider as he has grown more disillusioned with his life and with his art, while Cora has always been an outsider due to her incredibly restricted and rather nightmarish existence with her vicious alcoholic grandmother. She is trying to save money to escape to Brisbane, earning the money by selling shellfish and by petty theft. There is an immediate sympathy between Morahan and Cora.

Martin Scorcese contributes a brief but very insightful introduction, pointing out that Powell spent years hoping to get a movie adaptation of The Tempest off the ground and that Age of Consent was in some ways a kind of dress rehearsal for that film, a film that he was destined never to make. And in fact if you see the island as being a little like the island in The Tempest, a place not quite of this world, and if you see Morahan as Prospero, them the movie makes a lot more sense. Although he is not a magician, he is an artist, which is perhaps the closest equivalent we have in our world. And I think Scorcese is right to see the film a having a slight suggestion of the magical about it.

I think it’s certainly true that Brad Morahan sees his island retreat from the modern world as an island of enchantment, very much like Prospero’s island in The Tempest. You could even at a stretch see Cora as being a bit like Miranda. You could perhaps even see Cora’s grandmother as an analogue of Caliban.

Scorcese’s interpretation even helps to explain the various comic relief sub-plots. Although they are annoying and do break the mood, they do also add a touch of the grotesque and a feeling of unreality to proceedings, and add a theatrical touch, which may have been the intention.

Apart from a brief but memorable and typically outrageous appearance by the great Australian character actor Frank Thring early on the supporting actors are not terribly impressive. Fortunately the two leads, James Mason and Helen Mirren, more than make up for this deficiency (even if James Mason’s Australian accent is deplorable). Mason resists the temptation to make Morahan a stereotypical irascible and eccentric artist, or to overdo the misanthropy and the loneliness. He makes Morahan likeable and good-natured, in fact a man whose biggest problem perhaps has been that he’s always been too good-natured and unwilling to disappoint others. The sympathetic portrayal makes it easier to understand why Cora is attracted to him. He’s the first person who’s ever shown her respect and kindness. It’s an unsentimental respect and kindness, but it’s more than she’s ever had before.

Mirren is extraordinary. Not only was this her first feature film, she had not even done any TV work, and yet she’s in complete command. It’s one of the most impressive film debuts you’ll ever see.

Both Morahan and Cora are on a voyage of discovery. For Morahan it’s a rediscovery of a zest for life and art; for Cora it’s an awakening to the world and to the possibilities of life as well as an awakening of sexuality. The fact that Mason was 60 at the time the film was made, while Mirren was 24 (and her character is clearly intended to be somewhat younger still) means there was the potential for a certain amount of tackiness, but they bring a kind of innocence to their characterisation which avoids this pitfall.

That the movie, despite some weaknesses, actually works is due in large part to their performances. The gorgeous cinematography and the breath-taking locations also help. It really is visually magnificent, and since it’s a film about an artist it’s not just visual splendour for the sake of it. It is after all a movie about an artist’s love affair with beauty and light and colour.

The problem most people are going to have with this movie is the comedy. It’s not vulgar but it’s very broad. Powell had injected some comedy into Peeping Tom as well and I suspect this is one of the things British critics disliked about his later work. He was dealing in both Peeping Tom and Age of Consent with the all-consuming devouring nature of artistic obsession but he refused to be grim and miserable about it.

It’s worth pointing out that virtually all the comedy in the movie is lifted straight from the novel.

While it’s a coming-of-age movie I also see this movie, along with The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom, as part of Powell’s Artistic Obsession trilogy.

James Mason co-produced Age of Consent with Michael Powell and apparently Mason had quite a bit of creative input. Mason apparently pushed for changes to the ending and he was right to do so. The ending that was finally used is in fact pretty much identical to that of the novel.

Age of Consent
was Powell’s last feature film although at the time he had no way of knowing that. He would spend the remaining twenty years of his life desperately trying to get financing for another film. And of course Powell only made two features after Peeping Tom. So the theme of Age of Consent, of an artist trying to recapture his artistic vision, was a very personal one for Powell.

Age of Consent was a huge hit in Australia but didn’t do so well elsewhere. Certainly it didn’t do well enough to restore Powell’s reputation as a bankable director.

This is a movie that for many years seemed lost in obscurity, but in 2009 it was given a terrific DVD release packed with extras. It’s also uncut and it restores the original opening credits and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s original score which was heavily influence by Balinese music and which works very well. That’s the version reviewed here. It was paired, in a two-movie two-disc set, with the celebrated Powell-Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death. For my money Age of Consent is by far the more successful and more interesting film. There’s been a more recent Blu-Ray release.

This is an odd quirky little movie, but if you give it a chance (and if you can accept the comic sub-plots) it may well work its charms on you. A fascinating movie by a great film-maker. Very highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Norman Lindsay’s Age of Consent, the 1938 source novel. The movie follows the novel very closely indeed.

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