Age of Consent Review
Bradley Morahan (James Mason) is a successful artist, one able to have exhibitions in high-end New York galleries. But he’s jaded, believing he is past his prime. He decides to get away from it all, back to Australia, his native country. He arrives on an offshore island near the Great Barrier Reef, with just his dog Godfrey in tow, trying to rediscover his muse. Then he discovers a young woman called Cora (Helen Mirren).
For Michael Powell, Age of Consent is a late-period film in more ways than one. By the late 1960s, Powell’s partnership with Emeric Pressburger had come to an end, and the furore over Peeping Tom, followed by the expensive flop of The Queen’s Guards, had made filmmaking difficult for him in England. He worked on episodic television for a while, plus the German-made Bluebeard’s Castle from Bartók’s opera. Then, after a five-year gap, for the big screen he made They’re a Weird Mob in Australia. This was a big local hit, and it spurred calls for a genuinely Australian film industry. Other than tiny-budget experimental features, most often made in and around Melbourne and Sydney, and documentaries, Australia was most often displayed on the cinema screen as a location in foreign productions. Powell returned to Australia to make Age of Consent. Powell’s two Australian films were British-financed films, as were two other productions made soon afterwards – Ned Kelly, directed by Tony Richardson, and Walkabout, directed by Nicolas Roeg – and not forgetting the US/Australian coproduction Wake in Fright, directed by the Canadian Ted Kotcheff. But change was on the way: it’s a coincidence, but a symbolic one, that the world premiere of Age of Consent, 27 March 1969 in Brisbane, was the day before the Melbourne world premiere of the first all-local production to be given a cinema release in over ten years, Tim Burstall’s 2000 Weeks, a small landmark for the industry which would revive itself over the coming decade. With a screenplay from Peter Yeldham, Age of Consent was based on Norman Lindsay’s semi-autobiographical novel from 1938, which had been banned in Australia until 1962. Lindsay, as well-known as an artist as a writer, and controversial at the time due to the sexual frankness of his work, gets a proprietary credit at the beginning. He was still alive, in his late eighties, when Age of Consent was in production. Helen Mirren met him, and he said that she was his Cora to the life. (A much later Lindsay-inspired film is Sirens, made by another English-born director, John Duigan.)
Powell had long been an admirer of James Mason, and the two men co-produced Age of Consent. Mason’s involvement enabled the film to be financed, so bad a state was Powell’s career in. One abortive project of Powell and Mason’s was a film of The Tempest (with Gerald Scarfe at one point lined up as designer) and Age of Consent has several echoes of Shakespeare’s play. It’s a story of an older, disillusioned Prospero invigorated by a youthful Miranda. (Miranda’s grandmother, played by Neva Carr-Glynn, doubles as Caliban and his mother Sycorax. And if there’s a Puck, it’s Godfrey the scene-stealing dog, who gets his own credit at the beginning.) The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final play, and Age of Consent was, depending on your definition of “feature” (of which more below) Powell’s final feature. Like play, like film: both are playful, reflective works, which slip in and out of genre boundaries, musings on a life in art, its happy memories and its regrets.
Shot on location at Dunk Island, North Queensland, Age of Consent looks glorious in Hannes Staundinger’s camerawork. If there’s any film that unarguably has a male (heterosexual) gaze it’s this one, not least with Cora’s rapturously filmed nude scenes, particularly her underwater swim. Compare this if you like with a similar sequence in another important early film in the Australian film revival, Walkabout. This does make the film a little uncomfortable in the present era, not least because of its central relationship between an older man and a much younger woman, but it should be said that Powell stays on the right side of undue lasciviousness.
Mason’s Aussie accent is certainly shaky (you could charitably say that it shows that Bradley has been away from home for a long time}, but he gives an authoritative performance. Helen Mirren’s performance is more instinctive than many of her later roles. It’s widely believed that this was her screen debut, though that’s not actually true: she had a small role in Herostratus and played Hermia in Peter Hall’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Aged twenty-two at the time of filming, she already had a reputation on stage, being a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (as the end credits tell us). However, it’s an auspicious early role for her. On the other hand, Neva Carr-Glynn’s performance is on one jarring overstated note, though to be fair her role is written that way. As Bradley's friend Nat, Jack MacGowran, sporting a broad Aussie accent, contributes comedy relief early on and in the last third of the film, but it doesn’t work, and drags the film down. Age of Consent is definitely overlong, and certainly not among Powell’s greatest works, but there’s more than enough to appreciate.
Age of Consent opened in Sydney on 25 July 1969, and was a considerable success, playing in the now-defunct Rapallo Theatre in the city centre for seven months. However, for overseas release Columbia reedited the film. One of Columbia’s objections was the opening credits’ painting of Cora posing as a nude Columbia torch lady. They shortened the film by some nine minutes and replaced Peter Sculthorpe's gamelan-influenced score, which is one of the film's more distinctive features, with a more conventional score by Stanley Myers. They also removed two songs written and sung by Alan Dean, one of which plays over the end credits, but that’s less of a loss. In the making-of featurette on this disc, editor Anthony Buckley (who also edited Wake in Fright and went on to a long career as a producer) mentions that in time during the film’s long run in Australia prints became worn, not helped by projectionists taking souvenir frames of Mirren’s nude scenes. When reels were replaced, they were of the overseas version, which meant that some Australians saw a version of the film with both the Sculthorpe and Myers scores, depending on which reel was going through the projector at that moment.
Outside Australia, Age of Consent was not a commercial success, and like much of Powell’s work, with or without Pressburger, it fell into neglect until Powell was championed by younger filmmakers like Martin Scorsese about a decade later. Although he was planning future films until the day he died, many of them to be made in his new love Australia, Powell was never able to make another full-length feature. You have to wonder if it was in the back of his mind that he might not.
Age of Consent is Indicator Blu-ray number 112, released in a limited edition of 3000. The disc is encoded for all regions. Released in the UK uncut with an A certificate (allowing accompanied children) in 1969, the film was most recently passed with a 12 certificate in its full version. However, the shorter cut was passed 15 in 2005 and as it hasn’t been resubmitted that’s the certificate of the overall package.
The disc contains both the director’s cut/Australian release version (106:30) and the studio cut (99:27).The film was passed by the BBFC at its full length, but sources at the time give the release print’s running time as 98 minutes. Sources also say that the opening scene with Bradley in bed with his girlfriend Meg (Clarissa Kaye, who went on to marry Mason) was among those cut by Columbia, but it’s there in the studio cut on this disc. However, if that time is correct, one explanation might be that Powell reinstated the scene in the copy held by the National Film Archive (as per an article in the December 1984 Monthly Film Bulletin by Ian Christie), which is the source of the unique material in the studio cut on this disc. Some of it presumably still survived in the shorter version, as the scene begins with a caption (BRISBANE) not in the same shot in the longer cut. A full comparison of the two versions is out of the scope of this review, but also removed by Columbia were the opening scene in the New York art gallery and Nat’s arrival in Brisbane. Also, both credits sequences were remade.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. The film is richly coloured, with an extraordinary clarity of light, apparently accurate for its location. Skin tones tend towards orange, but that is surely due to the lighting and suntan. No complaints at all about the transfer, which is solid, with strong blacks and plenty of natural, film-like grain.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 1.0, and no complaints either. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available. I spotted no errors, so you can be sure that Aussieisms such as “nong” and “bludger” are present and correct.
The extras begin with a commentary by Kent Jones over the director’s cut, recorded in 2009 and carried forward from previous DVD releases (including the one I reviewed here). He provides a thorough run-through of the film's production history and its subsequent re-editing and neglect. Despite his evident affection for the film, he doesn't avoid criticism, finding some of the comic interludes too broad, and mentioning that the end-credits title song would never be found acceptable today.
On another audio track is a recording of a John Player Lecture by Powell (85:05), recorded in 1971 at London’s National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank), with edits eliminating the film extracts he showed. Hosted by Kevin Gough-Yates, this is a talk by Powell, with questions taken from the audience afterwards. He discusses the history of cinema and specifically the image and his relation to it over his career, with illustrative examples edited out of this recording. Powell specifically mentions that Pressburger wasn’t present, but on a third audio track they were both interviewed by Ian Christie at the same venue in 1985 (105:53). An opening caption advises of some technical issues in this recording, many of them to do with Pressburger's microphone and the low volume of questions from the audience. As with the earlier recording, film extracts shown are edited out, and a special guest makes an appearance partway through. This is an invaluable record of one of the great British filmmaking teams, neither of whom would be around for much longer. Pressburger died in 1988 and Powell in 1990.
Many of the extras are also carried forward from that 2009 DVD. Martin Scorsese provides a short introduction (5:12) in which he describes his meeting with James Mason at a film festival, and their mutual admiration of Powell's work. Making Age of Consent (16:41) features the director's son Kevin, the film’s unit production manager, Peter Sculthorpe and Anthony Buckley. Helen Mirren is interviewed in A Conversation with Cora (12:20). She tells of her considerable nervousness, which was allayed by Mason and Powell's friendliness. She says her performance was mostly instinctual, as befitted the character of Cora, rather than one overly thought through. It's not accurate that hers was the first nude scene in a major studio film, but it was certainly an early one, and something she seems proud of. Also interviewed are Ron and Valerie Taylor (10:03), who shot the underwater scenes. Since these were made, Peter Sculthorpe and Ron Taylor have passed away.
New to this edition is Age of Innocence (37:46), a detailed appreciation of the film by Ian Christie, an authority on Powell and Pressburger, putting the film in the context of Powell's career. Also on the disc are the film's trailer (2:18) and an image gallery comprising black and white stills and colour lobby cards and poster designs for both the Age of Consent and second film on this disc, which is The Boy Who Turned Yellow (53:59).
This was the final fiction film Powell directed. It was made in 1972 for the Children’s Film Foundation and the script was by Emeric Pressburger. The proposal that Powell should direct a children’s film was not met by universal approval by the CFF, although he was on the Foundation's board, but made it was. Young John's (Mark Dightam) pet mouse goes missing on a school trip to the Tower of London. On his way home from school, he, the Tube train he is on, and several other people suddenly turn yellow, the work of an extra-terrestrial called Nick (Robert Eddison), who feeds on and travels by means of electricity. While its London NW3 setting might not have been relatable to much of its audience in 1972 (John's family has a colour television, no less) this is an appealing flight of rather surreal fancy which went down well with its intended viewership. The transfer is derived from a HD restoration by the BFI and is presented in the ratio of 1.66:1 with LPCM mono sound, beginning with the appropriately-coloured BBFC U certificate of the time.
Indicator’s 40-page booklet begins with an essay by Samm Deighan, whose title “A Sea-Change into Something Rich and Strange” points up the parallels to The Tempest. Her essay discusses the film in much depth, finding Cora as a character with more agency than many other women in Powell’s films, and not meeting the violent ends of some of them. Vic Pratt contributes an essay on The Boy Who Turned Yellow, a warm appreciation of this oddity from the end of Powell’s career. Also in the booklet are extracts from Powell’s autobiography, extracts from contemporary reviews, and full credits for both films.