Saturday, January 27, 2007

Retro Mirren...

OK - Helen Mirren. Oscar on its way. Shoe in. Yes yes, The Queen, uh huh, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, sure, Excaliber, yup. But let's go waaay back to when she was a budding young actrice starring in Michael Powell and James Mason's 1968 co-production of "Age of Consent." This is a crazy and, in many ways, wonderful film, well worth seeing if you ever get the chance (it's not on DVD).

Mason stars as an Australian painter who can't bear society and especially the horror of urban art galleries where his work is sold. He loads up his paints and takes off for one of the little islands in the Great Barrier Reef where he finds a pigeon-filled cabin and sets up shop on the pristine and desolate beach. Until... it turns out that the island has a few other inhabitants, one of whom is the sartorially challenged Miss Mirren, who spends her days splashing among the waves, making mischief, and looking for conch and other shellfish to sell back on the mainland. Taken by her form, it's not long before Mason is paying Mirren to model for him.

Now I know what you're thinking, since when did James Mason become the movies' pedophilia go-to guy? But the twist here (and what's great about this character) is that he's genuinely taken by her as a muse. Even though this dame can't keep her kit on, he doesn't seem to have a sexual thought in his head about her. It's everyone else on the island (including Helen Mirren's drunken old sea hag of a Mum) who thinks Humbert Humbert has landed on their shores. And frankly everyone in the theater was initially thinking the same thing too. And that's where Michael Powell (sans his chum Pressburger) really fuels the fire. As the screen smolders with youthful sensuality and lush, wet, and warm Technicolor settings, the story keeps us focused on the paintings (done by Arthur Boyd). They are incredible - we see that indeed the beauty of the place and the model have been captured and distilled into essential and ecstatic artworks. It is a triumph of the artist's vision over the dirty old man's leer, though few who originally saw the film could get beyond the skin. Which is a shame because what we have here is a totally unpretentious tale of aesthetic sublimation. OK so yes, they get it on in the end, but it's not about that. Really. Despite the tone of the poster above. Or what the press reported.

The film is deadly funny too. The supporting cast is among the best I've ever seen - cartoony yes, but indelibly so. Mason is all rough edges and cantankerously charismatic, holding back in all the right ways, and completely believable as a painter. There is so much to relish and yet the film ultimately works as a result of what is left out - despite the glut of on screen information, there is no explaining or spoonfeeding. At times you feel you have to crane your neck to see what's around a corner or what Mason is painting.

I think Powell might have been the more experimental of the Archers. As a film, there are some bold cinematic mistakes in Age of Consent, and all of them are great risks that deserve full cheers from us progressive types.


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