Peeping Tom, the 1960 psychological thriller about a homicidal cinematographer who uses his camera to capture the death throes of the models he murders, is regarded today as one of director Michael Powell’s masterpieces. At the time of its release, however, it was universally reviled by most critics and brought an abrupt halt to Powell’s career. Some even mistakenly believed it was his last film and even Powell wondered if he’d ever work again. But the celebrated director would go on to helm four more feature films, a made-for-TV production of Bela Bartok’s opera Herzog Blaubarts Burg (aka Bluebeard’s Castle, 1963) and the documentary Return to the Edge of the World (1978). Among his post-Peeping Tom work, Age of Consent (1969), his penultimate feature, is an underrated delight and features Helen Mirren in her first starring role.
Prior to this, Powell had attempted a cinematic comeback from the Peeping Tom debacle with The Queen’s Guards (1961), a patriotic drama starring Raymond Massey which covers two generations of a family in The Queen’s Grenadier Guards. The film was not a success and was often dismissed by critics as an inferior attempt to recreate the success of the popular 1943 drama The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. As a result, Powell tried his hand at directing some television episodes of Espionage (1964), The Defenders (1965) and The Nurses (1965). All of this was a comedown from the artistry or popularity of his earlier work with screenwriter and co-producer/director Emeric Pressburger but Powell did experience a renewed surge of creativity when he traveled to Australia to film They’re a Weird Mob in 1966.
Based on a popular Australian novel, the film was a comedy about an Italian immigrant (Walter Chiari) trying to navigate a culture that was completely alien to him. They’re a Weird Mob was a box office success in its own country and has often been credited with reviving the moribund national cinema that led to the Australian ‘New Wave’ of the seventies. More importantly, the success of They’re a Weird Mob paved the way for Powell’s next film, Age of Consent (1969), which was also shot in Australia, and was as personal in its own way as his earlier Peeping Tom.
Age of Consent is based on a 1938 novel by Norman Lindsay who also worked as a political cartoonist and painter. The story, which dealt with a painter’s loss of interest in his art, might have been a thinly disguised autographical account of Lindsay’s own life but Powell connected with it and also with the idea that inspiration can spring from the most unlikely circumstances. In this case, the painter, Bradley Monahan, retreats to an isolated island to escape the commercial art world and live as a beach bum.
Prior to production, Powell told an interviewer, “My next film is the story of a painter who believes that he will no longer paint and of a girl who persuades him to begin again…He will probably end up painting her; but to see a painter sit down and paint a girl, this could be exciting, but I had the hardest time explaining to my scriptwriter that this didn’t excite me at all. What interested me was the problem of Creation and the fact that this creation in the case of the painter was very physical. He will have to struggle, to fight, even more strongly than he will move away from reality. It will be a slightly bitter comedy that I will produce with James Mason who will play the leading role.”
Powell had wanted to work with James Mason twenty-four years earlier on I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) but they had been unable to come to terms on salary. Now both men, entering the final stages of their film careers, seized the opportunity to make what they hoped would be their first major success in years.
Mason, who was also acting as co-producer, and Powell possibly saw their film as the antithesis of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita which Mason had starred in back in 1962. In that film, the relationship between a young girl and an older man ended in tragedy but in Age of Consent, the relationship leads to a mutually liberating experience for both parties. The film was also important for Mason in that it introduced him to his future second wife, Clarissa Kaye, who appears briefly toward the beginning in a sexual tryst with Bradley.
The filming of Age of Consent began in March of 1968 in Brisbane with additional location shooting on Dunk Island off the Queensland Coast. Interior scenes were shot at the Ajax Studios in Sydney and the budget was set at a modest 1.2 million dollars and bankrolled by Columbia Pictures’ British division. In her first major film role, Helen Mirren, a member of the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare company, played the part of Cora, Bradley’s muse and model, and Irish actor Jack MacGowran was cast as Bradley’s freeloading, disreputable friend Nat Kelly.
In the biography James Mason: Odd Man Out, Helen Mirren recalls the making of Age of Consent: “James had seen me in a National Youth Theatre season and he and Powell decided I’d be right for the role, but once we got started Powell kept having vociferous fits of anger on the set, and James was always there for me, very gently guiding and teaching as we went along. Having survived that brutal Hollywood world he was hugely experienced on the set, and tremendously generous to me. But after we finished shooting he asked me to stay with him for a holiday in Switzerland, and I suddenly saw how terribly lonely he was and how much he needed a woman like Clarissa to look after him. It was as though he’d never had anyone really by his side or on his side before. In the film he played another loner, a man on the run from any sort of social life, and that’s really what he was, at least for as long as we were on the Barrier Reef. Back in Switzerland, he seemed altogether more sophisticated and worldly.”
Clarissa Kaye recalled her bit part and first meeting with Mason in Sheridan Morley’s biography: “I auditioned and got it, despite the fact that they all said my eyes were too deep, and despite the fact that I was just getting over pneumonia. The woman in the film was supposed to be an old girlfriend of James’s, and the whole scene was shot in bed, though when I arrived in my nightdress Powell looked appalled. I told him I was a thirty-six-year-old woman with a thirty-six-year-old body which sagged in parts and didn’t look that good in the nude, but the real trouble was that because of the pneumonia I rattled every time I drew breath, and I think even James found it a little strange…Anyway I shot the scene with a temperature of about 103 and at the end of it we just got out of bed, said a polite goodbye and I thought that was the end of it.” Several weeks later, however, Mason sent Kaye a long letter, complimenting her performance, and it marked the beginning of a long correspondence by mail that eventually evolved into a romance and then marriage, a much happier one than he experienced with his first wife Pamela.
Mason and Powell were both hoping Age of Consent would be well received in England but the film ran into trouble with the British censors almost immediately. The opening bedroom scene between Mason and Kaye was removed as well as a nude swimming sequence with Mirren. Even if those scenes had remained intact, it is doubtful it would have made a difference to the British critics who were either negative or less than enthusiastic in their reviews.
Penelope Mortimer in the Observer wrote, “I tremendously admire James Mason and believed, until I saw Age of Consent, that he could do no wrong…It is best forgiven and forgotten.” The Variety review was a slight improvement: “The film has plenty of corn, is sometimes too slow, repetitious and badly edited…Yet [it] has immense charm, and the photography and superb scenery make it a good travelog ad for the Great Barrier Reef.”
Even Powell admitted there were flaws. “It wasn’t bad,” he said. “It had charm and it was well-acted. But I was disappointed by the painter. I was unable to find a painter to interpret my ideas. They had to be transposed on canvas. To show what he saw through his eyes. I had found a painter of Australian origins who had done numerous exhibitions in New York. He told me that he didn’t understand, that it was too difficult. So I was forced to treat it as a comedy. A sensual comedy. Not a big success, but interesting anyway.”
Powell also pointed out a specific scene in Age of Consent that was a personal favorite and “One of the best scenes I’ve ever made in which a dog puts on its own collar. He was a wonderful dog called Geoffrey, and he had a real old sergeant major owner and a quality I can only describe as cunning. So when I told him that I wanted the dog to put on his own collar he said, “I’ll have a word with him sir.’ I kept hoping people would remember the film and say, “That’s the one in which the dog puts on his own collar” – but they never did.”
It is much easier to assess Age of Consent now than in 1969 when critics had much higher and unreasonable expectations for the director behind such masterpieces as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). It is true that the film is very uneven in tone and quality, shifting back and forth between intimate drama and broad, raucous comedy (especially the sequences with Jack MacGowran). There is a climactic death scene of one of the characters that plays like a crude slapstick routine instead of the tragic resolution of a troubled relationship. In addition, Neva Carr-Glynn’s performance as Cora’s alcoholic grandmother registers as a shrill, overbearing caricature and Andonia Katsaros playing a sex-starved spinster is barely more than a cartoon figure.
James Mason, on the other hand, is immensely appealing and laid-back as the purposeless painter, despite an Australian accent that comes and goes. And Powell is quite correct in praising the dog Geoffrey, who as Bradley’s companion, steals every scene in which he appears.
Most memorable of all is Helen Mirren who has great poise and a natural beauty that suits her uninhibited character. Never one to avoid nude scenes, Mirren has several in Age of Consent but they rarely seem exploitive and often provide a striking juxtaposition of the human form against the natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef – the real star of the film.
One last bit of trivia: Norman Lindsay, whose novel provided the source for Age of Consent, was also the inspiration behind the 1994 film Sirens which was a fictionalized account of the painter’s life and was actually filmed on Lindsay’s estate in New South Wales, Australia.
Age of Consent has been released in various DVD editions over the years including the 45th Anniversary release from Mill Creek Entertainment in June 2015. The true cinephile, however, will want to see the completely restored version (an additional seven minutes) on Blu-Ray, which was released by Indicator in April 2021. This limited edition includes a host of extra features such as Helen Mirren recalling the film, a making of featurette with comments by production manager Kevin Powell, composer Peter Sculthorpe and editor Anthony Buckley, Powell & Emil Pressburger’s final film collaboration The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972) and more. The Indicator release is currently out of print but you can probably find a used or new copy from online sellers.
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I think Jack MacGowran spoiled it. Sometimes as a director you can’t do anything to rein in a performance and the character was required for the film. Otherwise I thought the tone was fine. but you are correct, it’s easier for us now to look at it objectively rather than back in the day when critics still expected great things from this particular director. I think the nudity made critics believe he was slumming it.