Cast & Crew
Bradley Morahan, a highly successful artist, is frustrated working in New York City and decides to return to his native Australia. He first goes to Brisbane, where he spends some time at the racetrack, and then goes to an island off the coast of Queensland that he remembers as being uninhabited. There he establishes himself in a grass hut and prepares to begin work; he is dismayed, however, to discover that the island is inhabited by an old alcoholic, Ma Ryan, and her beautiful granddaughter, Cora. The young girl gathers shellfish and sells them on the mainland to support her grandmother's drinking habits, but since she is also saving money to become a hairdresser in Melbourne, she gladly accepts a job as Bradley's model. Cora poses in the nude, and a love affair gradually begins to develop. Meanwhile, Nat Kelly, an old friend of Bradley's, suddenly appears, and after an unsuccessful attempt to borrow some money, Kelly steals £300 from the painter and flees the island. Ma Ryan then discovers Cora's savings from modeling and threatens to inform the authorities that Cora is below the age of consent. Their argument precipitates a fight over the money, and in the struggle the old woman falls off a cliff to her death. The police determine that the death was accidental, leaving Bradley and Cora free to continue their affair.
Tommy Hanlon Jr.
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and AGE OF CONSENT Are Featured in The Films of Michael Powell DVD Set
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came into their own making wartime movies that didn't fall into the accepted definition of propaganda. Instead of stern morale-builders about sacrifice to the flag, their "Archers" films criticized cultural contradictions in the military (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and in the countryside (A Canterbury Tale) in a way that promoted the English way of life as something worth preserving. A Matter of Life and Death (re-titled Stairway to Heaven for America) was produced just as the war ended. An unusually creative fantasy that strains the limits of color technology, it's also the closest the Archers came to a standard message picture, with an overt intent to propagate postwar harmony between England and the United States.
Representing the two countries are Brit flier Peter Carter (David Niven) and American WAC June (Kim Hunter). They meet and fall in love over the radio, when Peter reports that he's about to bail out of a plane with no parachute. He wakes up on a beach, alive but suffering from concussion damage that Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey of I Know Where I'm Going) plans to cure with a risky brain operation. But Peter experiences the crisis in the form of bizarre hallucinations in which a heavenly emissary known as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) arrives to escort him to the afterlife. Peter refuses to go with the 18th century French dandy, arguing that his miraculous survival and romance with June are events that Heaven didn't count on, and shouldn't revoke. As Peter is wheeled into the operating room, a celestial court convenes to determine his fate.
The premise is an elaborate variation on the film blanc form, that fantasy sub-genre dealing with heavenly waiting rooms and "lost souls" in limbo between terra firma and the heavenly gates. Reversing the particulars of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Powell and Pressburger's script shows the heavenly bureaucracy dealing with a mix-up that leaves a mortal alive when he should be dead. In this case, Earth is in Technicolor, and Heaven in B&W. A properly ethereal angel (Kathleen Byron of Black Narcissus) dressed as a servicewoman presides over a glassy reception hall that offers a Coca-Cola machine for the comfort of American fliers. It's basically the same setup as MGM's A Guy Named Joe, minus that film's vindictive suggestion that non-Allied aviators go straight to Hell. All of this heavenly hoo-haw is kept on the edge of ambiguity -- it could all simply be a figment of Peter's concussion. The notion that dreams and reality can coexist is further echoed in rehearsal scenes for an amateur play of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Heaven is populated by multitudes from every culture and time period, which accounts for Conductor 71's presence as Peter's personal contact man. Marius Goring is given the film's most famous line, upon arrival in the full-color real world: "Ah, how one is starved for Technicolor up there!" Peter's trial prosecutor is a Yankee patriot from the American war of independence, the stern Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey). Farlan would rather not see June, a daughter of Boston, entangled with a no-account Englishman who ought to be dead. Thanks to Alfred Junge's designs the fantastic heavenly trial is a wonder to behold, but it's also the weakest part of the film. Powell and Pressburger were asked to counter grumblings in the U.S. government that America shouldn't be aiding a monarchy ruling over a far-flung empire. The spirited debate simply acknowledges that the two countries are bound by similar values. The film's real climax comes with a replay of the cosmic dilemma from Fritz Lang's silent Destiny (Der müde Tod): faced with a terrible decision, June volunteers to take Peter's place in the afterworld.
Powell's visual imagination makes A Matter of Life and Death a sheer wonderment, aided immensely by Jack Cardiff's Technicolor artistry. Live action is routinely combined with matte overlays of abstract artwork. Dramatic scenes are accompanied by splashes of expressive color, reds and yellows that suffuse the film frame with a stylized theatricality. The beach where Peter Carter washes up is a hazy plain with waves converging on a vanishing point. It and a subsequent encounter with a nude goatherd convince Peter that he is indeed dead: "Where do I report?" Visual magic is a major theme. Dr. Reeves' camera obscura is like a private cinema that he uses to observe life around, while the beginning of the brain operation is seen from Peter's POV, with the camera peering through a giant set of eyelids.
The big illusions take place in heaven, dominated by a stone escalator that stretches into a galactic infinity. When the two domains meet, B&W combines with full color in several shots. Disembodied ghosts "walk through a wall" in what must have been a very difficult traveling matte. A pink rose marks transitions between worlds, and conveys the tears that prove June's love.
Powell and Pressburger's penchant for eccentricity doesn't loosen their film's grip on our emotions. Peter and June have formed a spiritual bond that heaven cannot, as they say, pull asunder. The most memorable images remain the enormous Technicolor close-ups of David Niven and particularly Kim Hunter, radiant in the center of the miracles. A Matter of Life and Death is a playful, reassuring transition between the tragedy of war and the hopes for the future.
The bright and breezy Age of Consent was released in 1969, twelve years after the Powell-Pressburger creative breakup. It comes from another era altogether, when Powell's directing career was coming to a close. Produced by its star James Mason from a book written in the 1930s, Peter Yeldham's screenplay follows celebrated artist Bradley Morahan (Mason) on a retreat to a remote island to recharge his creative batteries. Bradley is pursued by a rascally associate and freeloader (the wonderful Jack MacGowran) but makes his main contact with Cora Ryan (Helen Mirren), a curious local teen living in isolation. Cora initially seems a male sex fantasy, a mermaid selling seashells by the seashore a la James Bond's Honeychile Ryder in Dr. No. But Bradley's interest is channeled into his art, and Cora's wild child is his stimulating muse. For once we see a movie about a serious artist that actually convinces.
Age of Consent presents the beautiful and uninhibited Cora as the key element in Morahan's beach-combing paradise. In the midst of her self-discovery as a sexual being, Cora must dodge the repressive fury of her witch-like mother (Neva Carr-Glyn). She poses in the nude for Morahan, happy to be earning money and intrigued to see her body transformed into artworks. Cora dives to the reef, becoming an erotic aquatic sculpture for Bradley's sketches.
The newly adopted ratings system opened a flood of gratuitous nudity in mainstream filmmaking, and Age of Consent could easily have become a movie for dirty old men. Michael Powell instead opens up an autobiographical examination of the relationship between Art and Life. When jealous Cora accuses Bradley of "thinking only of the pictures", we can easily imagine the cinema-obsessed Powell having similar disputes with the women in his life.
It's typical of Michael Powell that he would use the freedom of the screen to express such a positive, healthy attitude toward sensuality. By contrast, Powell's contemporary Alfred Hitchcock gave us the sick sadism of Frenzy, and the talented Val Guest found himself doing smarmy nudie pictures like Au Pair Girls.
Sony's 2-DVD set The Films of Michael Powell has been in the works for quite some time; Sony completed a remastering of A Matter of Life and Death seven or eight years ago. The version on the disc bears the original English title. The color is dazzling, with only a couple of B&W sections suffering from excessive grain. Sony has restored Age of Consent to its original version, before Columbia cut it by several minutes and replaced its entire music score. Its transfer is equally spotless, although an occasional shot also exhibits more grain than one would expect.
Sony's disc producers have come up with worthy extras. Historian Ian Christie provides an incisive commentary for Life and Death and Kent Jones does the honors for Age of Consent. Martin Scorsese appears in video introductions for both features. Consent comes with three featurettes. A brief making-of piece has the composer Peter Sculthorpe and Powell's son Kevin discussing the film's production. Most welcome is an interview with the charming Helen Mirren, who looks back on her first feature film with pride and gratitude.
A third short focuses on the underwater photography of noted shark specialists Ron and Valerie Taylor, who explain how risky it was for Ms. Mirren to dive nude among the poisonous coral. They report that the Great Barrier Reef is no longer the paradise seen in the movie; after forty years of agricultural pollution the large fish are gone and the coral is dying out.
Sony's packaging is an attractive folding disc holder decorated with well-chosen graphic art.
To order The Films of Michael Powell, click here. Explore more Michael Powell titles here.
by Glenn Erickson
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and AGE OF CONSENT Are Featured in The Films of Michael Powell DVD Set
Age of Consent
Age of Consent was 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). And a climactic death scene of one of the characters plays like a crude slapstick routine instead of the tragic resolution of a troubled relationship. 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 likable 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.
Producer: James Mason, Michael Pate, Michael Powell
Director: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Peter Yeldham, Norman Lindsay (novel)
Cinematography: Hannes Staudinger
Film Editing: Anthony Buckley
Art Direction: Dennis Gentle
Music: Peter Sculthorpe
Cast: James Mason (Bradley Monahan), Helen Mirren (Cora Ryan), Jack MacGowran (Nat Kelly), Neva Carr-Glynn (Ma Ryan), Andonia Katsaros (Isabel Marley), Michael Boddy (Hendricks).
by Jeff Stafford
Michael Powell: Interviews edited by David Lazar
Michael Powell by James Howard
The Films of Michael Powell and the Archers by Scott Salwolke
James Mason: Odd Man Out by Sheridan Morley
Age of Consent
Filmed on the Great Barrier Reef at Dunk Isle, Queensland, Australia. Opened in Brisbane in March 1969; running time: 103 min. Sources conflict in crediting music composer.
Released in United States Spring March 8, 1970
Released in United States Spring March 8, 1970