Directed By: Michael Powell
Starring: James Mason, Helen Mirren, Jack MacGowran
Tag line: "Let yourself go ...... they do!"
Trivia: Based on the life of Norman Lindsay, who would later be the subject of 1993's Sirens
Released in 1969, Age of Consent was one of Michael Powell’s final efforts (it was the last feature-length movie he’d ever direct). With films ranging from the exquisite (The Red Shoes) to the deeply disturbing (Peeping Tom) to somewhere in-between (Black Narcissus), Powell left an indelible mark on the cinema, both in his native England and across the world, and even today, his pictures rank among the greatest of all time (a 2004 poll by Total Film magazine chose his 1946 fantasy / romance A Matter of Life and Death as the 2nd best British movie ever made, behind 1971’s Get Carter).
Yet it isn’t the director that makes Age of Consent a noteworthy film; it’s the appearance of a 22-year-old Helen Mirren, in what would be her first major motion picture role. As intriguing as she is beautiful, Dame Mirren’s talents are on full display even at this early stage of her career.
Based upon a semi-autobiographical novel by artist Norman Lindsey, Age of Consent stars James Mason as Bradley Morahan, a renowned painter who, to escape the New York art gallery scene, returns to his native Australia. Making his way to an island situated on the Great Barrier Reef, Morahan moves into a tiny shack with his dog Godfrey, and spends his first few days combing the beach, enjoying the solitude of his own private paradise. In fact, only a handful of people call this small island home, including a pretty blonde teenager named Cora (Mirren), who lives with her drunken grandmother, Ms. Ryan (Neva Carr-Glynn), in a hut not far from Morahan's. Though he went there to be alone, Morahan takes a liking to the young girl, and she inspires him to start drawing again. In exchange for her modeling services, Morahan pays Cora a dollar and a half an hour, which she puts aside with the other money she’s raised, all in the hopes of eventually having enough to leave this island, and her abusive grandmother, behind. But is Cora simply a model for Morahan, or does she mean more to him than he might realize?
The always reliable James Mason shines as the reclusive Morahan, an artist who, in his desire to avoid the limelight, travels to a remote corner of the globe, only to find a muse there who motivates him like no other has before. In addition to Mason, Age of Consent features Neva Carr-Glynn, who delivers a fiery performance as Ms. Ryan, Cora’s foul-tempered grandmother (after spotting her posing in the nude for Morahan, the old girl accuses Cora of prostituting herself, and threatens to report Morahan to the authorities for “corrupting” a minor); and Irish character actor Jack MacGowran plays the artist’s “pal”, Nat Kelly, a freeloader who, to avoid being arrested for failing to pay his alimony, travels to the island, where he puts the moves on Isabel Marley (Andonia Kastaros), Morahan’s neighbor and a middle-aged spinster with more money than she knows what to do with.
But from the moment she first appears on-screen, her wet lavender dress clinging to her so tightly that it leaves little to the imagination, Helen Mirren steals the movie right out from under her more experienced cast mates, portraying Cora as a simple, yet resourceful girl who wants more out of life than the island can offer her (she runs a successful seafood operation, catching shellfish and selling it to a local market, then skims money off the top before handing the profits over to her grandmother). At first, Morahan is just another client, buying Cora’s crawfish and prawns, but as he gets to know her, he realizes there’s more to this girl than meets the eye, and hires Cora to model for him. A free spirit who has no problem stripping off her clothes, Cora proves the perfect subject for his art, and as the two spend more time together, their business arrangement slowly transforms into something much more substantial.
With its gorgeous setting (it was shot on-location at Queensland’s Dunk island) and top-notch cinematography (including some impressive underwater scenes), Age of Consent is every bit as stunning as many of Powell’s more prestigious films. Toss a youthful Helen Mirren into the mix, convincing as both an innocent teen and a young woman in love, and you have a movie that approaches greatness.