TROUBLE IN PARADISE
Main Cast: James Mason, Helen Mirren
Director: Michael Powell
After my nocturnal misadventures with the various ghosts of Norma Desmond’s dead monkey pets, I was very relieved when Mr. Michael turned up the next morning, just in time for elevenses with a refreshing pitcher of watermelon margaritas that Normy whipped up in the Cuisinart. He brought with him the one and only Tangina, expert at ridding house and home of unwanted visitors. He apparently had found her cleaning houses in the San Fernando Valley and had no trouble convincing her that some temporary work for a star of my stature could help raise her profile and we might even be able to swing a reality TV deal through Star Is Born Productions. Anyway, she’s a lovely person, despite being about the same size as the chimpanzees we’re trying to rid the house of, and proved to have a hilariously wicked sense of humor after only four margaritas.
Leah, my gal Friday, came into work, had a couple of drinks to fortify herself and then she, Mr. Michael and Tangina left to tour the house and feel the spirit vibrations while Normy repaired to his studio to work on his latest composition, some sort of tone poem based on mermaid and other aquatic life. I listened to the first movement earlier this morning and found it awfully derivative of Hair. Normy was not amused so I hustled off to my study to place a few phone calls and make sure that my various business enterprises are all in good working order. It does take cash flow to be able to live in the style to which my adorning fans have become accustomed. I was half way through a call to my representatives in Mozambique (apparently Lesterene beauty products are doing very well there) when there was an enormous crash from the new construction area of the west wing. I raced to the window, peeped out to see Tangina wearing one of my best copper pots as a helmet apparently doing battle with a zombie monkey ghost while using a ladle as a rapier. I decided I better leave the house cleaning to the professionals and repaired to the home theater with the rest of the margaritas in order to relax and shut out the sounds of battle that kept drifting in from above.
Once in the lovely (and sound proof) confines of my home theater, I flipped through a number of DVDs I had recently bought at a clearance sale at Pic and Save. Normally $4.99 each, they had been marked down to under a dollar and were predominantly direct to cable titles one usually runs into late night when they have to program something and they think no one will notice the lack of quality. One case, however, caught my eye for the familiar names so I opened it up, popped in the disc and settled back to view Age of Consent, one of the last films from the great British director, Michael Powell, starring a grizzled James Mason and a very young Helen Mirren in her first starring role.
Age of Consent, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Lindsay, is the Gauginesque tale of successful painter, Bradley Morahan (James Mason), who is feeling artistically spent. He decides to take himself off to Australia to Dunk Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef, where he sets up shop in a shack hoping to find fresh inspiration. While there, he meets Cora Ryan (Helen Mirren) a somewhat feral, but nubile girl child who lives with her even more feral drunk of a grandmother (Neva Carr Glynn) in another shack just down the beach. Cora sells him freshly caught seafood in the hopes of making a few dollars so that she can escape the island and go to Brisbane and be a hair dresser (everyone deserves a dream). Bradley is taken with her, especially her body, and soon hires her as a model, which gives Cora plenty of opportunities to frolic naked in the ocean. Grandma is not happy about this as she is underage, nor is the young man (Harold Hopkins) who would like to be her boyfriend. There is also a rather muddled subplot about Bradley’s friend Nat (Jack Macgowran) who comes to stay and gets involved with a local matron (Antonia Katsaros). Eventually, everything turns out OK for the majority of the characters, despite an untimely death.
Age of Consent is a bit of a trifle, most notable for the work of Michael Powell. Powell was well known for his ravishing use of color in British films of the 40s and 50s (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) but his career came to a crashing halt in 1960 with the film Peeping Tom as the unpleasant subject matter of a serial killer with sexual motivations was simply too much for audiences and critics of the day. None of his subsequent films ever reached the kind of heights he had scaled earlier in his career. In this film, his use of color and the cinematography of the island and the waters surrounding it (cinematography by Hannes Staudinger and underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor who would go on to do similar honors in many future films) to bring the story to life. Rarely have the tropics appeared as lush and green and inviting as they do here. Powell also coaxes decent performances out of old pro James Mason (who was sixty at the time this film was made and still looked pretty damned good in a pair of shorts) and the young Helen Mirren. Mirren was a known quantity at this time, only 22, she was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and had attained a certain amount of stage fame in London. She brings a certain amount of sly self-awareness and psychological depth to Cora that would not have been present had the part been played by a lesser actress. The role calls for extensive nudity, somewhat scandalous in 1969 when the film was released, but Mirren uses her good looks and figure not just to be an object, but to make us aware that she is also the subject of her own life. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but she manages to do it and hold her own against James Mason.
The supporting cast are old pros, well known in Australian stage and film circles. Harold Hopkins, as the resident hunk who fancies Cora, makes the most impression as he seems more human and less caught up in 1960s film clichés than the rest. He went on to a very long and distinguished career. Neva Carr Glynn tends to go a little too over the top in some of her scenes and Jack Macgowran is too obviously aware that he’s the comic relief and tries too hard. The major weakness of the film is a very 1960s sensibility. Hollywood was finally catching up with the sexual revolution but wasn’t quite sure yet how to handle previously taboo topics and many of their attempts come across as awkward and dated. It wasn’t until the new group of independent directors like Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby and Francis Ford Coppola emerged a couple of years later that film learned how to reflect the societal upheavals of the sixties. Before that, we were graced with such monstrosities as The Happening and Skidoo. The film also plays into the long held Hollywood double standard – female nudity is played for desire and male nudity is played for comic effect.
I ended up enjoying Age of Consent, even if it is far from Michael Powell’s best work. Certainly anyone with interest in his later career or with an interest in the early Helen Mirren and her bodacious tatas should take a look.
Abstract tapestry. Gratuitous Peggy Cass. Outboard motor boats. Companion dog. Diaphanous pink dress. Cliff falling. Shopkeeper bargaining. Strategic seaweed placement.