Age of Consent was the second Australian feature film by British director Michael Powell, whose prior partnership with co-writer, director and producer Emeric Pressburger created a stable of films widely regarded as some of UK cinema’s best and most influential.
Classics such as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Released in 1969, three years after the premiere of Powell’s hit Sydney-set comedy They’re a Weird Mob, Age of Consent (adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by painter Norman Lindsay) also heralded the cinematic arrival of a major acting talent.
In her first substantial film role, a then 22-year-old Helen Mirren made a literal and figurative splash, playing a beach babe living on a remote island on the Great Barrier Reef. Mirren had been working on stage with England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and she brought depth and dignity to this role that expanded her ability as an actor and her striking allure as a sex symbol, following a racy appearance in 1967 experimental feature Herostratus.
Mirren plays Cora, a breathtakingly beautiful Queenslander who lives on Dunk Island (where the film was shot) and becomes the muse of famous painter Bradley Morahan (James Mason). The scotch-swilling over-the-hill Australian artist, who has been living in New York, has lost his drive and absconded home to reset his creative batteries.
Bradley bunkers down in a rickety wooden shack on the picturesque island, where lush postcard-like images from cinematographer Hannes Staudinger recall paintings seen during the opening credits. Bradley begins his creative take-two with a dab of paint here and there – on the shack’s walls, window panes and frames – but finds a more soul-replenishing subject in the young Cora.
The first time Mirren appears, she is wearing a wet pinkish-purple dress with sandy blonde hair and frayed straw hat. Anybody who’s seen the film will recall that exquisite, earthy beauty. A coarse voicebox belies her bombshell looks; the actor’s performance makes her an early entrant in an Australian cinematic tradition of presenting characters whose appearances are radiant but who sound as cultivated as tin cans.
Cora is under the thumb of a shrieking, scowling, squinting, gin-guzzling grandmother who bears a striking resemblance to the crazy cat lady from The Simpsons. Neva Carr Glyn’s performance as the detestable old bag is obscenely overblown and cartoonish, more befitting of Popeye than Powell. There are moments when Glyn comes perilously close to delivering a death blow to the film’s measured tone and tranquil vibe.
Age of Consent leaves nothing to the imagination insofar as Mirren’s body is concerned. Powell’s handling of the nude sequences for which the film is probably best remembered is tasteful, at times even lyrical, including gorgeous underwater diving scenes ruminating on the physical and spiritual freedoms of being alone in a remote exotic location.
A mature approach in stark contrast to a wave of racy sex romps that were in the mail (part of the Ozploitation movement of the 70s and 80s) didn’t stop prudish producers from cutting out the sensual bits. While a complete version of Age of Consent played in local cinemas, overseas distributors were reportedly aghast at the amount of nudity in the film and re-edited it, removing approximately six minutes. They also rescored the film, swapping out the composition of prolific Australian composer and conductor Peter Sculthorpe and replacing it with a jauntier one.
Many years later, Powell’s original vision was reinstated at home and abroad. A restored version spearheaded by Martin Scorsese, a big fan of the director, played at the 2005 Sydney film festival and was released on DVD in Australia in 2012. Age of Consent has dated well: it’s far from the director’s best work but a deeply memorable holiday movie.
This article was written by Luke Buckmaster, for theguardian.com on Sunday 14th June 2015 02.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010