Director: Michael Powell
Stars: James Mason, Helen Mirren, Jack MacGowran, Lonsdale
First viewing, via DVD
In the 1940s, British director Michael Powell, in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, made The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among others. All four are jewels in the crown of British cinema: look at any list of the greatest British films ever made and you’ll find them featured prominently. By way of example, see this list from Time Out and this one by the British Film Institute (this list also features Carry On… Up the Khyber ranked directly above The Killing Fields, making it mandatory reading). While Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom also features on these lists and is today held in esteem, this voyeuristic psychological thriller was reviled by critics and cultural commentators on release and the filmmaker was ostracized wholesale from the industry. Later that decade he made two flicks in Australia: the 1966 comedy They’re a Weird Mob and 1969’s Age of Consent.
Based on a work of autobiographical fiction by Norman Lindsay, the subject of last week’s film Sirens, Age of Consent stars James Mason as the Lindsay-esque artist Bradley Morahan. Frustrated by the commerce and crassness of the London art world and the corresponding erosion of his own output, ex pat Morahan retreats back to Australia. At his holiday house in North Queensland, he encounters Cora (Helen Mirren), an unsophisticated but radiant beauty who becomes his muse. However, interference comes in the form of Cora’s mentally ill mother and Morahan’s opportunist “friend” Nat (Jack MacGowran).
Age of Consent won me over at the outset with this colourful title card …
…and then sealed the deal several cards later with this very important credit for Mason and Mirren’s furry co-star:
Suffice to say, whilst the combination of Michael Powell, James Mason and Helen Mirren had me thinking Age of Consent would be a stately, ornate affair, the finished film is much more earthy, vibrant and fun. In retrospect I should have known better, given Lindsay’s presence as both subject matter and source novelist and Powell’s lively handling of They’re a Weird Mob a few years earlier. Indeed, while Powell’s local films along with Wake in Fright and Walkabout – two other films made in and about Australia by outsiders – helped plant the seeds for the New Wave of the 70s, I get the feeling Powell was a lot more affectionate towards his base of operations than Ted Kotcheff and Nicolas Roeg. Moreover, I’m sure that in the aftermath of Peeping Tom, Powell empathized with Lindsay’s own real-life brushes with controversy.
It’s not always sound criticism comparing two films with the same subject matter made in different eras by different directors, but it is interesting to compare Age of Consent and Sirens. At the most immediate surface level, the films’ different settings (Age of Consent appears to be set contemporaneous with its production, whilst Sirens is a period film) and locations (Powell’s film was made at Dunk Isle in the Great Barrier Reef, whilst Duigan’s was set in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains and surrounds) give them a different flavour. In particular, Sirens is a pretty film, but Age of Consent is GORGEOUS, harnessing Powell’s knack for rich, eye popping colour as well as underwater photography from the winning team of Ron and Valerie Taylor (later of Jaws fame). In a way, Powell and co capture the intoxicating effect of a tropical environment on an artist much more successfully than Mario Andreacchio in Paradise Found (see review here).
At their core, these two Lindsay-themed films have different priorities. Sirens wears its discourse and didacticism on its sleeve, constantly making its subtext text, with Lindsay a catalyst but ultimately of secondary importance narrative-wise to the visiting Campions and titular Sirens. Age of Consent, meanwhile, is more a portrait of the artist rediscovering his creativity and passion via his muse. Where Sirens romanticizes the ideas behind the art, Age of Consent romanticizes the artistic process itself. Again, it’s hard not to shake parallels between Morahan and Powell himself, likewise a creator retreating from Britain to rekindle his fires down under.
James Mason’s mellifluous, velvety, aristocratic tones are among the most recognisable in Western film, so there’s a momentary shock to hearing him submerge that voice under a muscular ex pat Australian accent. The same goes for Helen Mirren, making her screen debut, who serves here as “an early entrant in an Australian cinematic tradition of presenting characters whose appearances are radiant but who sound as cultivated as tin can” (see also Susie Porter in Welcome to Woop Woop) as noted by Luke Buckmaster in The Guardian. But that surprise soon subsides, and both actors are excellent. Also deserving of praise: Lonsdale, the canine performer portraying Morahan’s dog Godfrey. Jack MacGowran (whose final film would be The Exorcist a few years later) is a bit much at times as Morahan’s grating old chum, but that’s entirely appropriate to the story.
Mason’s work here comes a few years after his lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, also about an older man falling for an underage girl. But Morahan and Humbert Humbert are cut from very different cloths, and Powell deflects attention away from the romantic/sexual dimension of the artist/muse relationship – it’s all about the art, see – until film’s end. Moreover, the film stresses that Cora is nearly of age, and the fact that Mirren was 22 years of age at the time and looks her 22 years certainly helps to minimize any unsavoury connotations. Nonetheless, Cora is frequently nude onscreen and, much like Linday’s own artwork, this got some censors riled up: the film was cut from 106 to 98 minutes for theatrical release, though this cut footage has been restored for DVD.
In summary: Michael Powell is one of the greats, with admirers as distinguished as Martin Scorsese and George Romero, and Australia was fortunate to provide safe harbour for the then-persona non grata director. While Age of Consent isn’t one of his masterworks, it’s a highly watchable film from a masterful filmmaker featuring work from two masterful performers. Highly recommended.
Next week: A topical (i.e. a mercenary, clickbaity) look at Simon Wincer’s Melbourne Cup-themed The Cup (2011).