Mr Mason is relaxed and amiable, Mr MacGowran is mildly funny, and Miss Mirren is attractive to watch, but some of the minor roles are played very unconvincingly indeed. There is, however, a dog called Godfrey who turns in a good performance as a likeable dog. (Daily Express, November 1969)
History has not been kind to Age of Consent. I have a sort of affection for it, but the critic in me knows that it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast – Godfrey’s breakfast, if you will – a film of career beginnings and endings. As well as providing Helen Mirren with her first starring role on film, it was the last feature to be made by director Michael Powell (1905-1990). In collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, Powell had been a formidable presence in British cinema of the Forties and Fifties, with classics like The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death to his name. But his reputation took a nosedive when Peeping Tom (1960), a gritty thriller about a voyeuristic killer, was panned as ‘pornographic’. Like several filmmakers of his generation, he struggled to come to terms with the new freedoms allowed him in the 1960s – I detect the same hesitancy in Hitchcock’s final films – and although Peeping Tom was later resurrected by Martin Scorsese and hailed as a risk-taking masterpiece, Powell never found his form again.
Risk-taking in Age of Consent is confined to what Powell coyly called ‘a painter’s nudity’. Australian artist Bradley Morahan (James Mason), bereft of inspiration in his adopted home of New York, returns to an island off the Queensland coast in search of solitude. There he encounters Cora, a teenage child of nature (Mirren), who engages in petty thievery to finance her dream of escaping to Brisbane to train as a hairdresser. She becomes Bradley’s model, his muse, and (we are left to assume) finally his lover. There’s comic relief from veteran Irish actor Jack MacGowran playing Bradley’s irritating pal Nat Tate who seeks refuge from an alimony suit by battening on his old friend, and some cute tricks from Bradley’s faithful pooch, one of a great line of canine leads that runs from Rin Tin Tin to Uggie. With erratic intrusions of darker material (an attempted rape, a sudden death), the film never quite finds a persuasive, unitary tone. But it boasts some classy underwater photography, and the Great Barrier Reef (even without the added ornament of Mirren scuba-diving in her birthday suit) looks superb.
James Mason’s performance is indeed ‘relaxed and amiable’, as the reviewer said. You feel he could do this sort of thing in his sleep. As the feral Cora, Mirren has a lot more to prove, needing to cast off some of the baggage of the ‘classical’ actress (as well as her clothes). It wasn’t an easy experience for her, as she told Mason’s biographer:
I’d only been working for about a year, and this was the first film I’d ever done [sic]; 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 just 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.
I find hers an engaging performance, suggestive of a young person beginning to understand their own power to influence others. As she looks at Bradley’s painting of her, Cora becomes conscious of her body. Returning to the squalor of her bedroom, she begins to examine it in a cracked mirror, until interrupted by her grandmother who attempts to beat her for her ‘sinfulness’. Cora breaks the old woman’s cane and pushes her away, shouting that she is not to be treated like a child anymore. It’s nicely played, but I’m still not convinced Mirren ever ‘found’ the character. (That’s always assuming that there’s more to be found here than a succubus of the male imagination.)
Powell, as he tells the story, had spotted Mirren when casting for Sebastian, a 1968 spy spoof and Dirk Bogarde-vehicle which Powell produced:
Helen… had come with dozens of other girls to audition for [Mr] Sebastian, and David Greene, who directed the tests, thought she should have played the lead part. He asked her to read a difficult scene two different ways, an old trick but a good one, and she passed it with ease and humour. She moved smoothly and easily from one character to the other. She was no prodigy. She admitted later on that she had been scared to death, but that didn’t stop her doing a good job on both girls.(Million-Dollar Movie, pp509-10)
That part went instead to Susannah York. But when setting up his next project and in need of an actress who had ‘humour, a glint in her eye, a jaw that showed character’, he knew who he wanted:
Helen Mirren had just signed a three-year contract with the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare company. It was the start of a splendid classical stage career. But at the time all we could think of was how to get her out of it. Her prospective legitimate employers were naturally not pleased, but finally it occurred to somebody that if a girl they already had under contract was going to play opposite James Mason in a film, there might be something in it for Stratford.
With time to kill in the CUP Bookshop one day, I stumbled across The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film. Looking up ‘Mirren, Helen’ in the index, I expected to find something about Peter Hall’s 1968 Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which she played Hermia, or Celestino Coronada’s bizarre Hamlet (1976) where she doubled up as Gertrude and Ophelia, or even the Hamlet-derived Prince of Jutland (1994). In fact, the only reference occurs in a section on refashionings of The Tempest, where Tony Howard finds a connection between Age of Consent, a ‘menopausal male fantasy of sexual/artistic renewal’, and Shakespeare’s last play. It’s an ingenious reading, I grant, but perhaps a little far-fetched. Mason is the isolated magus, Mirren a composite Miranda-Ariel. In this filmic variation, the witch Sycorax (who appears only as a name in Shakespeare’s play) is made visible; she is the drunken old harridan, grandmother to Mirren’s character, who constrains Cora’s natural exuberance and frustrates her efforts to leave the island by confiscating the girl’s savings.
Yet there is a connection somewhere, if only by way of a thought-experiment. Michael Powell had been attempting for many years to set up a film version of The Tempest. The original plan involved John Gielgud and Moira Shearer. That came to nothing. But after working with Mason on Age of Consent, Powell believed he had found his Prospero. The two discussed the project seriously in the early Seventies, by which time Powell had added an opening scene of his own that bracketed Prospero with Galileo as fellows in scientific enterprise. A pair of Greek financiers offered to put up half the money if Powell would shoot the film in Greece. When the golden couple of Mia Farrow and André Previn relocated to London, Powell signed up Farrow as Ariel, with Previn to compose and conduct the score. Topol (!) was engaged as Caliban and Michael York as Ferdinand. Frankie Howerd and Malcolm McDowell were also on board, according to a confident interview Powell gave to The Guardian in 1975, when he still expected to start shooting ‘in the autumn’. Nowhere in what’s written about this intriguing might-have-been of film history do we learn whom Powell had in mind to play Miranda. Three decades later, director Julie Taymor had more success with backers. For her film adaptation of The Tempest (2010) she rewrote the male lead as a female, casting Helen Mirren (now in her sixties) as ‘Prospera’, duchess of Milan. Watching Felicity Jones’s Miranda running barefoot over the volcanic rocks of Hawaii in Taymor’s film, I was reminded of Cora in Age of Consent. A young Mirren as Miranda in a film of The Tempest: now there’s a thought…
Raymond Gardner, interview with Michael Powell, Guardian, 7 May 1975
Clive Hirschhorn, The Films of James Mason (1975)
Tony Howard, ‘Shakespeare’s cinematic offshoots’, in Russell Jackson, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (2007)
Sheridan Morley, James Mason: Odd Man Out (1989)
Michael Powell, Million-Dollar Movie: The Second Volume of His Life in Movies (1992)