Age of Consent (1969) ***

Reputations were made and broken on this tale of a jaded artist returning to his homeland to rediscover his mojo. Director Michael Powell had, in tandem with partner Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most acclaimed films of the 1940s – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) just remade by the BBC and The Red Shoes (1948) – but the partnership had ended the next decade. Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960) was greeted with a revulsion from which his career never recovered. Age of Consent was his penultimate picture but the extensive nudity and the age gap between the principals left critics shaking their heads.

For Helen Mirren, on the other hand, it was a triumphant start to a career that has now spanned half a century, one Oscar and three Oscar nominations. She was a burgeoning theatrical talent at the Royal Shakespeare Company when she made her movie debut as the muse of the artist played by James Mason. It should also be pointed out that when it came to scene-stealing she had a rival in the pooch Godfrey.

You would rightly be concerned that there could be some grooming going on. Although 24 at the time of the film’s release, Mirren played an under-age nymph who spent a great deal of time sporting naked in the sea off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But there are a couple of provisos. In the first place, Mirren’s character was not swimming for pleasure, she was diving for seafood to augment her impoverished lifestyle. In the second place, she was so poor she would hardly have afforded a swimsuit and was the kind of free spirit anyway who might have shucked one off. Thirdly, and more importantly, Mason wasn’t interested. He wasn’t the kind of artist who needed to perve on young girls. An early scene showed him in bed with a girlfriend and it was clear that he was an object of lust elsewhere. Mason was an artist, fit and tanned, as obsessed any other artist about his talent, and was in this remote stretch not to hunt for young naked girls but to find inspiration. As well as eventually painting Mirren, he also transforms the shack he rents into something of beauty.

Mason is as vital to Mirren’s self-development. The money he pays her for modelling goes towards her escape fund. Her mother being a useless thieving alcoholic, she has little in the way of role model. And the world of seafood supply was competitive. She is lost in paradise and the scene of her buying a tacky handbag demonstrates the extent of her initial ambition. Although her physical attributes attract male attention, it is only on forming a relationship with the painter that Mirren begins to believe in herself. There’s not much more to the central story than the artist rediscovering his creative spark and helping Mirren’s personal development along the way.

And if Powell had wanted to make an erotically-charged movie, he need look no further than his own Black Narcissus, in which two nuns are brought to the brink of lustful temptation in a convent in the Himalayas. Powell, himself, had form in the erotic department, having previously been the illicit lover of the film’s star Deborah Kerr and at the time of making the movie had switched, in similar illicit fashion, to her co-star Kathleen Byron. There is no question that the young Mirren in a beauty, but it is not lust that guides Mason.

Female career longevity has always been an issue in Hollywood, the assumption being that women had shorter careers than men. But when I was writing “When Women Ruled Hollywood,” I discovered this was not true. Until Sophia Loren’s late foray this year, Jane Fonda had led the roll of honor – male or female – with a career lasting 58 years. Next came Shirley Maclaine with 56 years, then Clint Eastwood (54), Katharine Hepburn (52) and Helen Mirren (51) and Robert Redford (51). Loren’s latest – The Life Ahead – gave her a career as a recognised star turn of 66 years.

Mason is a believable character. He is not an impoverished artist. Far from being self-deluded, he is a questing individual, turning his back on easy money and the temptations of big city life in order to reinvent himself. He isn’t going to starve and he has no problems with women. And he is perfectly capable of looking after himself.  A more rounded artist would be hard to find. Precisely because there is no sexual relationship with Mirren, the movie, as a film about character development, is ideally balanced.

The movie is gorgeously filmed, with many aerial shots of the reef and underwater photography by Ron and Valerie Taylor.  

What does let the show down is a proliferation of cliched characters who over-act. Jack McGowran as a sponging friend, ruthless seducer and thief heads that list closely followed by Neva Carr-Glynn as Mirren’s grandmother who looks like a reject from a Dickens novel. There’s also a dumb and dumber cop and a neighbor so bent on sex that she falls for McGowran. It’s not the first time comedy has got in the way of art, but it’s a shame it had to interrupt so often what is otherwise a touching film.

At its heart is a portrait of the artist as an older man and his sensitive relationship with a young girl. In later years, Powell married film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and after his death she oversaw the restoration of Age of Consent, with eight minutes added and the Stanley Myers score replaced by the original by Peter Sculthorpe.

Nun but the Brave

Setting aside its impact on popular culture and the Austrian tourist industry, The Sound of Music was also responsible for bringing nuns – an admittedly small sub-genre – back into fashion.

Of course, there had been some big hitters getting into the box office habit in the past, most notably The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) with Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947), Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949), Kerr again in a rather more resourceful mode opposite Robert Mitchum in war drama Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957) and Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1958). All four actresses (Kerr in the second outing) were Oscar-nominated. But none of the films ushered in a rush of wannabes.

The Sound of Music was viewed as directly responsible for putting nine projects on the starting grid. Leading the charge was Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun (1966), MGM’s biopic of the Belgian sister Dominique whose records topped the charts. Columbia chipped in with The Trouble with Angels (1966), directed by Ida Lupino and headlining Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, which spawned a sequel also with Russell Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968).

Both were neck-and-neck at the Easter 1966 box office, The Singing Nun having the edge in New York since it opened at the 6,200-seat Radio City Music Hall, where it set a new seasonal record, but the Russell-Mills vehicle more than matched it in other cities.

Nuns also featured in Billy Wilder comedy The Fortune Cookie (1966) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Italian comedy The Little Nuns starring Catherine Spaak also benefitted from the upsurge of interest in nuns, earning a late November 1965 release when it was already two years old.

Also in the pipeline producer Ross Hunter was prepping The Heaven Train for Universal from a screenplay by James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah, 1965). Carlo Ponti had wife Sophia Loren in mind to star in Mother Cabrini, about the first American saint. Rhonda Fleming had been announced as the female lead for The Nuns in the Sports Car, an independent film to be made in Paris.

On the foreign horizon was French director Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse (1966) – released in the United states as The Nun – starring Anna Karina. Luis Bunuel, who had already ventured into this territory with Viridiana (1961), was developing a Mexican picture also to be called The Nun. But La Religieuse hit censor trouble in France where it was initially banned but eventually set the box office wheels spinning at home and in the United States.

While Sally Fields in television’s The Flying Nun (1968) and the Russell Angels sequel kept the pot boiling, producers continued showing interest in films featuring nuns later in the decade. Two Mules for Sister Sara – written by Budd Boetticher and originally slated to be directed by him – was greenlit by Universal in 1967 although not hitting screen until three years later. Mary Tyler Moore played a nun opposite Elvis Presley in Change of Habit (1969) and Robert H. Solo signed a deal in 1969 to make The Devils for United Artists, although, that, too would take a couple of years to surface.

Note: not all these films finally saw the light of day – those with no year specified mentioned ended up shelved.

SOURCES: “Nuns Back In Film Fashion,” Variety, Dec 8, 1965, p11; “Films Sister Act: Or Nun-Such B.O,” Variety, Apr 20, 1966, 22; “Nun Might Go to Cannes,” Variety, Apr 20, 1966, 20;  “Beauregard’s Nun Gets Box Office Religion,” Variety, Sep 27, 1967, 18;  “Prostitute Pose: Nun Was Boetticher Screenplay and Now Universal,” Variety, Oct 4, 1967, 1; “Bob Solo’s 3 for UA,” Variety, Aug 20, 1969, 5.