AFED #22: Age of Consent (Australia, 1969); Dir. Michael Powell

In director Lindsay Anderson's final film, the quasi-documentary Is That All There Is? he's asked by the critic Tom Sutcliffe whether it's true Peeping Tom ended director Michael Powell's career. "Complete rubbish" retorts Anderson, adding that Powell "didn't have a marketable talent".

It tells us more about Anderson's penchant for pithy aphorisms, but there's probably some truth that had Powell been commercially savvier he might have found it easier to reclaim some standing in the British film industry. The glory years of his collaborations with Emeric Pressberger had long passed by the time of Peeping Tom's release in 1960 and a host of younger directors, including Anderson himself, were about to set forth with a fresher outlook.

As it was Powell would have to travel overseas to seek out directing jobs. After filming an adaptation of the opera Bluebeard's Castle in Germany he headed down under for two films shot in Australia. The second of these, the penultimate of Powell's directorial career, was Age of Consent.

On the face of it the premise of the film sounds a promising one. James Mason stars as a disillusioned artist who travels to remote spot off the Great Barrier Reef to try and rediscover his muse. He finds it in the curvaceous form of a naive young local girl Helen Mirren, but when it becomes knowledge Mason is painting her in the nude the community is scandalised by their relationship.

My first doubts surfaced with the opening title: Norman Lindsay's Age of Consent. Apparently Lindsay was an Australian artist and writer of some repute although I must confess to having never heard of him. Moreover it suggested, albeit subtly, that creative control of the project lay somewhere other than Powell himself.

The problem's confirmed not long after when we hear Mason's character speak; he's supposed to be Australian but presumably via Yorkshire since it's one of the least convincing accents you'll hear anywhere. During a telephone conversation later in the film it even veers into a South African twang. Surely it would have been better to find some explanation for it but one can only assume nobody had the courage to tell the venerable Mr Mason how ridiculous he sounded.

Although a distraction it might be forgiveable if the rest of the film achieved some of the poetry and sensuality of its conceit. There are some tender moments between the two leads, but for the main part it aims for a broad comedic tone and fails miserably. One of the principal sources of this 'humour' comes in the form of Jack McGowran, who plays a parasitic friend of Mason's who decides to join him at his retreat. His introduction does nothing but disrupt the developing frisson between the two main characters.

In what was her first major role Helen Mirren is fine as Cora, the local girl who agrees to pose in exchange for money she hopes will help her get away from her alcoholic grandmather. Not for the last time male viewers are likely to find themselves focusing upon Mirren's comely figure, but her depiction of a young woman's growing awareness of her sexuality offers some glimpses of an emerging talent.

But when the best performer is Mason's dog, Godfrey, it gives a good indication that Age of Consent really doesn't add up to much. As a promotion for the Great Barrier Reef as a holiday location it did at least manage to capture some of the beauty of the scenery, but I prefer films to be more than a moving postcard.


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