What have we done, attaching all our psychological hang-ups to the beauty of a natural world so much bigger than us? Can you really explain a painting? At its best, Michael Powell's 1969 film Age of Consent is a tranquil and lovely meditation on eroticism, its connexion to the beauty of nature, and the creative process. In its worst bits, it's a mildly amusing comedy and an off-putting defensive argument for an older man to make love to an underage girl. If Powell and star James Mason had made peace with what they apparently wanted something beautiful could have really flourished in this movie. As it is, it has more than enough virtues to recommend it.
This movie was made after James Mason had already played an older man trying to romance considerably younger women (girls really) in both Georgy Girl and Lolita. Unlike those two films he's here not portrayed as pathetic for it. Age of Consent isn't as intellectual as Lolita--that's not to say it isn't smart but it lacks the psychological analysis that's evident in the amusing case of a man who was foolish enough to let his libido lead him by the nose into a relationship with predictably bad chemistry. Powell doesn't make intellectual arguments, he argues with beauty.
It's exciting to see Michael Powell approach the subject of the creative process again, something he dealt with so brilliantly in The Red Shoes. In Age of Consent, Mason plays Bradley Morahan, a famous painter who's lost interest in his medium. He goes to a remote place in Australia and finds a muse in a girl named Cora played by Helen Mirren in her first leading film role.
Mirren had a perfect body and she was stunningly gorgeous. And she already had the instincts of a great actress evident in the quickness and complexity of her reactions. Although nudity was a big part of this film, Powell spends a lot of time focusing on her face during nude sequences, like in a scene where Cora takes off her dress to contemplate herself in a mirror as something an artist might find worth painting.
Powell mostly just gives us her face as we watch Mirren create a subtle process of reaction. Powell was not a director content to make do with a pretty actress as one can see from the great performances given in his films by Deborah Kerr and Moira Shearer. But Marilyn Monroe was a great actress even when she seemed dumb. Powell liked actresses who showed intellect in their faces and this is true for Mirren who was at the time primarily a theatre actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Despite the fact that her character is a credulous teenage girl, Powell didn't assume this character could have been achieved with an actress that conveyed little or conveyed things broadly.
We see her thought process as she's deciding how much she likes from the attractive young man piloting her boat when he tries flirting with her and kissing her. When she shouts back at her abusive alcoholic grandmother, we can see the confusion at the moral rebuke aimed at her natural feelings arising from her just beginning to assert her own perception of herself.
Of course, both of the foils for Cora I've just mentioned are straw men in the argument for a young girl to make love to an older man--the young attractive man who's too rough and aggressive and the overbearing, viciously shaming guardian. Despite Mirren's always fascinating performance, these characters diminish the film a great deal in comparison to the breathtaking sequences of visual beauty.
The Expressionistic paintings created by painter Paul Delprat of Helen Mirren for the film are really lovely and there's a sort of drowsy, soothing quality to the scenes of Mason painting her while she's standing on the beach or swimming nude. There's a conscious attempt to tie what they're doing to the beauty of nature, most explicitly in a shot of Mirren standing waist deep in water while she's being painted and her gaze, which the camera pans to follow, being drawn by sounds of birds coming from the trees.
In another stark contrast to this, the film has a subplot starring the brilliant Irish comedic actor Jack MacGowran as Bradley's schnorrer friend who comes to stay with him and disrupts Bradley and Cora's work schedule.
Bradley's fear of his friend finding out about Cora and getting his lecherous claws on the impressionable girl is partly there to present a contrast to Bradley's purer intentions and partly there for not really necessary comic relief as MacGowran tries to woo another neighbour. He is very funny but the tone of these scenes makes them feel like they belong in another movie. I found myself just as impatient as Bradley and Cora which, to be fair, may also have been part of Powell's intentions.
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