Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AGE OF CONSENT (1969) was Michael Powell's final film. Frankly, it's a miracle it ever got made! Why? Because the film Powell made BEFORE this one was PEEPING TOM (1960); and that one was such a career disaster to the director that it effectively ended his career. Nowadays, PEEPING TOM is of course thought of as a classic but at the time the "distasteful" subject matter seemed to offend everyone and there was very little chance that Michael Powell would ever get to make another film. Basically, the only reason he DID is because filmstar James Mason was going to co-produce AGE OF CONSENT along with Powell. It seems incomprehensible to me, even owing to the brouhaha over PEEPING TOM, that such an obviously fine, talented and respected director would be passed over because of one movie. But sadly, this was the state in which Powell would find himself until Mason co-produced and starred in AGE OF CONSENT. Reportedly Powell's old partner Emeric Pressburger contributed a tiny little bit to the film but not enough to illicit a film credit; Pressburger apparrently wasn't interested in the story. While this would in fact be Powell's final film, it was also the first movie made by a certain Helen Mirren: already a respected Shakespearean stage actress making her film debut here.
AGE OF CONSENT was based on a book by Norman Lindsey and filmed on the breathtakingly beautiful Australian Great Barrier Reef. The film finds James Mason as a jaded and disheartened artist whose agent suggests he finds a deserted island somewhere to rekindle his artistic inspiration. In the film, Mason is supposed to be Australian by birth; I think the least said about his Australian accent the better -- and, in fact, Helen Mirren reportedly has made considerable fun of her co-star's accent while cheekily proclaiming her own spot on! Mason travels to a not-quite-deserted island off the Great Barrier Reef (along with his SPECTACULAR dog Godfrey -- more on him later) where he finds a ramshackle cottage on the beach. Along with one or two bizarre neighbours, Mason encounters a waif-like part-time thief (Helen Mirren) who catches and sells seafood in order to make enough money to escape her drunken grandmother and go to the mainland to become a hairdresser. Mason suggests that Mirren pose for him and he will pay her; thus increasing the money much more than the girl could make from catching prawns or stealing chickens. Mirren agrees and, happily for us, spends a great deal of the movie with her kit off -- like EVERY good Helen Mirren movie, actually. However, before you switch off, I should say that oddly the nudity in the film doesn't come across as gratuitous, smutty or tasteless. It has been described as "an artist's nudity"; that is, one gets the same feeling viewing the film as looking at a nude painting in an art gallery. Sure, Helen Mirren looks great but the nudity reads as particularly innocent. By all reports, Powell was extremely kind, supportive and gentle while directing the actress. Mirren, in an interview provided on the DVD, states categorically that she had absolutely no problem with the nudity at the time; owing to the fact that they were filming on a mostly deserted Barrier Reef location at a sun-drenched beach. It was only on interior studio sets where she found nude scenes a little disconcerting. Here, however, Mirren is exceptionally natural in front of the camera. All through the film (clothed and unclothed), Mirren snorkel-dives and swims through coral reefs (extremely risky when naked, I must add) and does ALL her own stunts and diving. Another remarkable scene occurs when Mirren is alone, nude, in front of a full-length mirror; her character observes herself with palpable studiousness as she is realizing she is no longer a child and has become a woman with all the seductive power and beauty that such a new role brings with it. A really capital bit of acting from the future Dame. Another breathtakingly beautiful scene finds Mirren posing waist-deep in the ocean as Mason paints her; Mirren holds a spear like a trident and appears for all the world like some female Poseideon risen from the deep surveying her kingdom. The acting by Mirren and Mason in this scene, mostly worldless, is truly something to see.
Basically the entire film focuses on the developing relationship between Mason and Mirren; thankfully Mason avoids appearing as a lustful old pervert trying to score with a young babe. Mason, in fact, spends 99% of the film without the slightest hint of lustful intentions towards his model. In fact, by the end of the film Mirren storms off in a tiff because Mason only thinks of her as a model while she obviously has deeper feelings for him. At one point, Mason's gambling semi-friend Jack MacGowran shows up unexpectedly on the island in order to hide from authorities trying to collect his unpaid alimony payments. Mason's distaste at this intrusion is palpable; he wanted to get AWAY from the modern world and here is MacGowran storming in like a brusque hurricane effectively putting a halt to all Mason's artistic progress with his new "muse" Helen Mirren. Powell was apparently very much against casting MacGowran in the role but I think his performance is spot on for the character: venal, greedy, shifty and low-class! The director reportedly rode MacGowran particularly hard (uncharacteristically) while treating everyone else on the shoot with gentlemanly kid gloves. Regardless, one of the biggest stars in the entire film (an opinion shared by Powell himself) is Godfrey the dog who performs with remarkable acting prowess. At one point, the dog proves himself quite a comedian! Mason takes a boat trip to the mainland at one point to pick up supplies so he ties Godfrey up with a leash and collar. As Mason returns after a day's shopping and calls and whistles for Godfrey, we see the dog comes running down the beach before Mason gets there. That's right, Godfrey has freed himself and run rampant along the beach all day. Upon hearing Mason, the dog runs back to the leash and collar and, honest to God, is seen nosing himself BACK INTO THE DOG COLLAR. I know that you can teach dogs a lot of tricks but I never once imagined you could teach a dog to do something like that -- put itself single-pawed back into a dog collar!
AGE OF CONSENT is a surprisingly interesting viewing experience. I don't know what I thought the film would be like before I watched it but afterwards I found the film to hold up rather well. Even disregarding Helen Mirren's acres of flesh. As I've said, the potential for lasciviousness is neatly avoided by the film and one is left with a film that seems to get a good handle on the process of "artistic muse": what it is and how one finds it. The ultimate result in the film's 11th hour that finds Mirren and Mason to finally adopt a "romantic" relationship did strike me as somewhat false and I probably would have preferred them to remain strictly artist and model. However, this is only a very minor quibble and I don't think it hurts the film at all. The film does, however, feature an EXTREMELY creepy, loungy "theme song" called "The Age of Consent" which is totally inappropriate to the gentleness of the film and is quite effective in making one's skin crawl. However, just think of the campy song as separate from the film ... there's always the mute button during the end credits! It hardly needs to be said, I don't think, that the film looks ravishing; beautifully shot by DP Hannis Stauding. Also, the previously excised musical score by Peter Sculthorpe has been restored; which is a very good thing since the music in the film is sympathetically composed to fit perfectly with the film and I can't imagine it without it. Happily, AGE OF CONSENT has just been released on a 2 dvd box set called "THE FILMS OF MICHAEL POWELL" along with the long-awaited release of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH finally on DVD! You may recall I wrote about THAT film a while ago on this blog and you can re-read it by clicking here. This double DVD set is simply a must have you can't do without!


Weaverman said...

For me Powell is the numero uno English film director (Great as Hitchcock is his best films are American)but AGE OF CONSENT has so far eluded me. Helen Mirren looks gorgeous in the stills. As I write this I'm only about 100 yds from Helen's old school so Helen is well remembered around here. Must get to see this one

Unknown said...

Love this film, and the book it's based on is pretty good, too, with Norman Lindsay's original illustrations. Love to have a copy. Have to track one down.

Dis Guy said...

Yeah i do remember dynamints and now i want some. I always liked them better than tic tacs and i answered your question here since i had nowhere else to post a reply. helen mirren looks hot as hell in this movie too btw!