ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Age of Consent (1969) dir: Michael Powell Blu Ray (Indicator)
An artist discovers a new muse
James Mason (who also co-produced) plays Bradley Morahan, an Australian artist who decides to relocate to a quiet island in the Great Barrier Reef with only his dog Godfrey (Lonsdale) for company. While settling into his newfound idyllic life, he encounters Cora (Helen Mirren), an adolescent girl who is supposedly cared for (but, in reality, pretty much exploited) by her alcoholic grandmother (Neva Carr-Glynn). They make ends meet by her taking up various moneymaking hustles, ranging from fishing to petty thievery.
Bradley finds out about her light-fingered tendencies when he learns that a chicken which she sold him went missing from the pen of neighbour Isabel (Andonia Katsaros). When he confronts Cora about this, she tells him that she is doing so, in part, to save some money in order to leave the island and start a new life in Brisbane. He persuades her to give up stealing and earn a small income by modelling nude for his paintings. The film follows the progress of their relationship as Bradley finds a new artistic muse in her, and Cora undergoes her own sensual awakening.
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Overlooked Michael Powell
One could be forgiven for believing that the seminal Peeping Tom (1960) was famed British director Michael Powell’s swansong. In fact, while the controversy surrounding it did result in him being ostracised from the nation’s film industry, he actually continued to direct up until the 1970s - including some TV series episodes, a Children’s Film Foundation production and a couple of feature-length films made in Australia. Nowadays, all of these have largely been forgotten about or, at most, are considered footnotes in his overall body of work.
Age of Consent was the second of his two Australian films and, while it was a domestic critical and box office success, has remained overlooked elsewhere in the world. It is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by painter and writer Norman Lindsay. Its title, its “adolescent falls for an older man” plot and the fact that Helen Mirren (who was in her 20s at the time and, I have to add, very beautiful) disrobes multiple times in front of the camera might lead you to believe that it is some lascivious, sensationalist piece of exploitation. However, the results are more nuanced and sensitively handled than you might expect.
While it isn’t some unsung Michael Powell masterpiece, it’s still evident that he was able to weave a lot of his old directorial magic even at this twilight stage of his career. He takes a charming, naturalistic approach to filmmaking, placing a heavy emphasis on the island’s inherent beauty and wildlife - bats hanging upside-down in the trees, a dog chasing a huge toad out of their house and several tranquil underwater sequences - and visually associating it all with Bradley’s brightly-coloured artwork. A lot of the storytelling places an emphasis on the lyrical and the visual rather than on dialogue, a classic example being when Cora undresses herself while alone in her bedroom. While nothing is said, much is communicated about her sexual blossoming and internal feelings. Peter Sculthorpe’s sweet flute-heavy ambient soundtrack adds a warm, dreamlike undercurrent.
James Mason, here bestowed with a wiry beard and patchy but serviceable Australian accent, is less suave than usual. Instead, he fully inhabits his quirkily bohemian, artistic persona. One gets the impression that he actually slept in his beachside cabin and painted his artworks for real. Helen Mirren is wonderful as a wayward, misguided but charmingly sensual young lady. While this was her first major movie role, she even upstages the (then) far more famous and experienced top-billed star.
However, while Age of Consent is certainly a watchable and interesting effort, it is occasionally awkward and uneven in tone. Most of the supporting character performances are broad caricatures, especially Jack MacGowran as Bradley’s annoyingly boorish freeloader of a best mate, and Neva Carr-Glynn as an overbearing and drink-sozzled harpy of a grandmother. The film veers from gentle drama to some really out-of-place broad comedy - a slapstick scene where a lonely, horny middle-aged woman pretty much rapes her male guest on her living room floor, upending a tea table in the process, being one of the most notable instances. Most of all, the tragic fate of one particular character in the third act is quickly brushed off in favour of a contrived, all-tied-up-with-a-pretty-bow conclusion.
As such, Age of Consent is too flawed to be ranked up there with the likes of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes or, for that matter, Peeping Tom. Nonetheless, at the same time, it has enough worth to deserve better than the near-obscurity in which it has languished over the years.
Runtime: 106 mins
Dir: Michael Powell
Script: Peter Yeldham, based on a novel by Norman Lindsay
Starring: James Mason, Helen Mirren, Jack MacGowran, Neva Carr-Glynn, Andonia Katsaros, Clarissa Kaye-Mason, Lonsdale
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
It’s yet another fantastic restoration courtesy of Indicator. The colour grading is so nostalgically rich and warm that it’s a delight for the eyes.
There’s an absolute wealth to enjoy here, including two versions of the film. The above review focuses on the Director’s Cut. The other version (the Studio Cut) was the one which was released internationally in cinemas. It has been shorn of some nudity, while Peter Sculthorpe’s score is replaced by a somewhat more routine 1960s jazz soundtrack courtesy of composer Stanley Myers. Needless to say, you would be better off just watching the former version unless you are a completist.
Audio Commentary with Kent Jones
Film critic and programmer Jones’s commentary track is well worth a listen. Since Michael Powell’s former spouse, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, gave him access to his personal diary, many of the revelations here are genuinely insightful. He has some particularly interesting stuff to say about Powell’s late career; he mentions that his previous Australian film, They're a Weird Mob, was a huge domestic success and has been credited with kick-starting the country’s film industry (although again, it is relatively little-known internationally).
While Age of Consent displays many of Powell’s distinctive touches and tropes, James Mason also had a considerable creative input as producer. The opening transition from underwater footage of The Great Barrier Reef to a shot of a submerged Swiss watch in a shop window was his idea, as were the early gallery scene and the film’s romantic ending. The shoot didn’t always go smoothly; a portable generator fell into the sea during the first day of filming and the unpredictable weather was a constant challenge. However, Powell’s expertise was such that he was able to effectively work around these difficulties and keep to a tight schedule.
Lonsdale the dog (who played Godfrey in the film) was trained by Scotty Denholm, who also worked with the animals on the popular Australian children’s TV show Skippy. Amongst other things, he taught him to slip back into his leash collar - a trick which we see in the film.
The John Player Lecture with Michael Powell
This 1971 audio recording of a lecture with the director was conducted at the National Film Theatre, London in 1971. He discusses how and why he got into filmmaking, as well as his various influences and inspirations including Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock and Vsevolod Pudovkin. The usual issues with these extras which frequently pop up on Indicator releases apply - i.e. the audience questions are often impossible to make out and there are references to film clips which (due to the audio-only nature of this recording) are not visible to us. However, buffs of the director and early 20th century cinema will find it to be of some interest.
The Guardian Interview with Powell and Pressburger
Ian Christie, a professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck's Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, conducted this interview with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger at the NFT, London in 1985, shortly following the release of a reprint of their 1945 writing-directing collaboration The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Unfortunately, the weak audio quality here makes it hard going.
Age of Innocence
Ian Christie discusses all things Age of Consent in this excellent video essay. He admits that he was slightly disappointed with the film when he first saw it back in 1969, partially because of his expectations in relation to Michael Powell’s earlier work, and partially because he didn’t understand why its central character went from creating abstract works of modern art at the start of the story to nude paintings later on. When he brought this up during an interview with Powell, the latter responded that he himself wasn’t impressed with the quality of the artwork he had to use for the film.
Michael Powell and actor James Mason formed their own company called Nautilus Productions for making the film. However, they did so as a springboard for launching future productions; Powell was keen to get an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest off the ground with Mason as star. Gerald Scarfe was even approached to create artwork for this proposed film which, regrettably, never materialised.
Powell had intended Age of Consent to be a celebration of Australian culture, from the use of the controversial source novel by native painter Norman Lindsay to the choice of location (Dunk Island in the Great Barrier Reef). This also extended to his choice of Peter Sculthorpe - who was, at that time, one of the country’s most well-regarded composers - for the soundtrack. He was duly upset when Columbia imposed a new score by Stanley Myers for the international release.
Making Age of Consent
Age of Consent’s unit manager (and son of Michael) Kevin Powell, composer Peter Sculthorpe and editor Anthony Buckley reunite for this fascinating featurette. Buckley reveals that it was a very economical shoot in terms of takes; approximately 100,000 feet of negative were shot and the finished film used around 80,000. The film enjoyed a lengthy run in Sydney but the prints ended up being a mess because the projectionists were notorious for snipping small pieces from the nude scenes to take home with them - and the damaged reels were subsequently replaced by ones sourced from Columbia featuring the different Stanley Myers score, thus making for a disjointed viewing experience.
Martin Scorsese on Age of Consent
Longtime Powell and Mason admirer Scorsese discusses the film and its theme of artistic passion in this short featurette.
Helen Mirren: A Conversation with Cora
The iconic English actress makes for delightful company as she talks about making Age of Consent. It clearly comes across that it was a daunting experience for her, partially because it was her first movie role when her prior background was in theatre, and partially because it was her first time flying abroad to a tropical country.
Down-Under with Ron and Valerie Taylor
The husband-and-wife team filmed Age of Consent’s breathtaking underwater sequences. They discuss the film as well as the inherent risks of underwater filming in the Great Barrier Reef. One danger which Ron touches upon is that of being poisoned from scratching yourself on coral - he himself ended up in hospital for several days as a result of this. Mirren is also interviewed here; he describes her terror after a rope tie around her dress got caught on the coral during one of her diving sequences.
The Boy Who Turned Yellow
Since Age of Consent failed to attract much attention outside of Australia, Michael Powell found it practically impossible to gain funding for further projects. He could only indulge his directorial proclivities one more time by reuniting with his old colleague Emeric Pressburger for this 54-minute Children’s Film Foundation production which was released in 1972.
Needless to say, The Boy Who Turned Yellow is a very minor entry in his filmography. As with other CFF films, it’s a quaint low-budget affair which is best viewed through nostalgic glasses by imagining oneself as a young child from the 1970s. It features Mark Dightam as a schoolboy who (as the title suggests) gets turned yellow during a freak incident on a London tube train. With the help of an equally yellow adult alien named Nick (Robert Eddison), he learns that he can now travel via the electric currents in TV sets. He decides to use his newfound powers to find his pet mouse that went missing during a school field trip to the Tower of London.
The sci-fi adventure elements here are exceedingly whimsical and the comedic moments are, to say the least, on the corny side (the tower beefeaters execute trespassers just like in the old days and… wait for it… literally eat roast beef for dinner). Still, it’s a harmless time-killer and there’s a modicum of evidence of that classic Powell visual flair in the use of lighting and colour.
A nice inclusion - and hats off to Indicator for going that extra mile by beautifully restoring it.
An image gallery, trailer and collector’s booklet round out the extras.
This all adds up to a nice package for Michael Powell Fans. Yet another fine Indicator release.