Age of Consent (1969) **1/2
dir. Michael Powell
Starring: James Mason, Helen Mirren, Jack MacGowran, Neva Carr-Glynn, Andonia Katsaros
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Okay, I don’t mean to reduce this movie to the following, but how can one not? The very thought of Helen Mirren NAKED in anything is always a cause for rejoicing.
However, the fact that Mirren is 23 years old in this film AND nude, semi-nude or in skimpy, skin-tight attire for pretty much the entire running time means that even if one doesn’t like the movie, there is plenty – and I mean PLENTY – to admire!
Luckily, there IS so much more to admire here than Miss Mirren’s various states of undress, her seemingly naive and alternatively knowing character, her lips, her eyes, her milky flesh, her supple, delectable breasts and her exquisite, pillowy and utterly perfect rump roast.
In addition to the sight of Mirren's gossamer soft tissue, the picture stars a taught, tanned and terrific James Mason, a lovely supporting bit from Jack MacGowran (he played the ill-fated alcoholic director Burke Dennings in The Exorcist) and last, but certainly not least, it's the final work by one of cinema’s greatest auteurs, Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Peeping Tom).
Set against the stunning topography of the Great Barrier Reef, Age of Consent tells the slight, but entertaining story of a middle aged artist who, while financially successful, is at a crossroads in his creative life and feels he has yet to generate work that has any value beyond the purely monetary. Seeking solace, he decides to pack it all in and settle on what he believes to be a deserted island on the reef in order to get both relaxation and, perhaps, a spark of inspiration.
The island, however, is not bereft of a population – a ragtag group of hermit-like inhabitants soon rear their heads. Some of them are ugly. There’s a kooky middle-aged Miss Haversham type (Andonia Katsaros), starved for sex and a drunken old hag (Neva Carr-Glynn) who spends much of her time sucking back cheap booze and abusing her beautiful, young granddaughter.
This is where Mirren raises her head of perfection. As the granddaughter Cora, Mirren eventually catches the eye of the artist and before you can say “Humbert Humbert”, she’s dropping her clothes and providing him the muse-like services he so desperately requires. Inevitably, Cora provides services of the sexual kind, but Mason’s character is so self absorbed that he’s blinded by his genius and doesn’t realize just how much Cora begins to love him.
Powell always had a soft spot for odd, obsessive characters living in either the outer reaches of the planet (I Know Where I’m Going) or in worlds far removed from the daily life most of us know (The Red Shoes). One can see how he was attracted to the material Age of Consent provided him.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Lindsay, it allows Powell the opportunity to train his lens on the stunning natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef while at the same time, focusing almost microscopically on those who inhabit it – dwarfed as they are like just so many insects. Mason, who doubled as the producer always longed to work with Powell so when he brought the project to him, it was a match made in Heaven.
The supporting cast is also not without considerable merit. Appearing as Mason’s drunken, gambling-addicted old pal, Jack MacGowaran comes close to stealing every scene he is in. There are also two cameos that add considerable texture to the picture. One is the great Australian character actor Frank Thring as Mason’s haughty agent and Mason’s real-life wife Clarissa Kaye who plays his sultry, raven-haired beauty on the mainland. She’s so wonderful in her brief appearance that one wishes she’d had a career well beyond her devotion to Mason.
Sadly, this was Powell’s final feature. He lived for another quarter of a century after it was released and tried in vain to get other projects off the ground. Married to ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker, being the recipient of accolades, retrospectives, restorations and in particular, the adoration of numerous filmmakers including the great Martin Scorsese (who continues to cite Powell as his primary inspiration), Powell was only able to raise financing for two short works after Age of Consent.
As Scorsese movingly notes in an accompanying interview in the recent DVD release of Powell’s preferred cut (as opposed to the heavily butchered version that floated around for too many years), Powell never ceased to face a day without planning films he wanted to make. He was the ultimate filmmaker in that sense. As the world passed him by on some levels, he never gave up.
If the film falters slightly, it’s only in comparison to the considerable emotional and intellectual depth of Powell’s previous work. That said - Mirren’s Cora is a delicate, exquisite creature. There is both a passion and understanding beneath her supple youth and radiating from her soulful eyes that we are drawn to her as Mason’s character also is – with both yearning and passion.
It’s a lovely little film.
And did I mention Mirren is naked in it?
“Age of Consent” is available on DVD in a package titled “Michael Powell, The Collector’s Choice” from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and double-billed with a restored version of Powell’s truly brilliant “A Matter of Life and Death” (AKA “Stairway to Heaven”)