Efforts to reach a consensus regarding what constitutes a national cinema can muddy the waters when it comes to trying to evaluate the merits of any given movie. Mark Fraser finds himself caught on this academic merry-go-round while looking at the penultimate film of one of 20th Century England’s most celebrated directors.
There was a time when Michael Powell’s Age of Consent (1969) would have been vilified by some of Australia’s intelligentsia despite the fact it was one of the few features made Down Under during the second half of the 1960s just before the so-called renaissance of the country’s movie industry the following decade.
And, judging from the available literature, it is arguable these hostilities probably peaked some time during the second half of the 1980s when a portion of Australian critics and audience members were becoming rather parochial as they tackled cultural issues – cinematic and otherwise – pertaining to national identity and ownership.
At the time a number of naval gazing film analysts and viewers were obsessed with properly defining Australianness – a problematic concept that one of the country’s better known commentators, Clive James, had described back in 1976 as “the philosopher’s stone” of Australian culture.
Thankfully, a few years later, Elizabeth Jacka and Susan Dermody provided this vague metaphor with some less abstract context in their two volume 1987 book The Screening of Australia.
Australianness, they wrote, is a “powerful construct … a call to some kind of national consciousness, to a generalised consensus about national ‘type’, behaviour and identity”. Moreover, “it is a political construct or at least a construct in the service of a political idea”.
Related to this is the notion of an Australian national cinema which, the pair said, relied on the assumption that “film is a crucial part of indigenous culture deserving support because of its contribution to the richness and self-reflectiveness of the Australian experience and because, equally, it contributes a large, exportable body of imagery (and) truths about Australia”.
While not wanting to get too lost in in the detail here, it is nevertheless constructive to note that – in the eyes of Jacka and Dermody at least – the idea of achieving true Australianness had started to polarise local cinema audiences, whose members were aligning themselves with either “international product” or “indigenous film”. This, in turn, had “forced cultural issues into the economic stakes of the industry” – something which concerned members of Australia’s snooty intellectual elite, who were fearful that their local-made movies would be swamped with too much foreign content.
(And just to be clear here, the term indigenous was not used in the First Nations sense; on the contrary, it reflected a predominantly white national film industry which started re-establishing itself post 1970 with the help of government funding and, by the mid-1980s, was enjoying a fair degree of global success on the back of money spinners like George Miller’s Mad Max II AKA The Road Warrior  and Peter Faiman’s popular 1986 opus Crocodile Dundee.)
Moreover, Jacka and Dermody – who called cultural nationalism (in which the notion of Australianness plays a significant part) “a kind of modest, non-disturbing reversal of the direction of flow of cultural hegemony” and something which could “inure Australians to cultural hegemony from without, helping to establish a view of the world that serves in our own national interests rather than those of another state” – were also a little wary of the idea, saying it had the ability to blur and efface “so many finer, more local and more critical issues”.
Perhaps just as importantly, while national identity could, in the short term at least, oppose any threats to cultural self-determination, it was not “substantial or fine enough to sustain an indigenous cinema for long”.
In other words, as noble as the idea might seem, trying to establish succinct and definable boundaries for the definition of Australianness is kind of self-defeating given it sacrifices certain minutiae (like class, race, gender and age) for bigger picture concerns.
Flying the flag
Nevertheless, such reservations didn’t stop Framework contributor Ross Gibbons from throwing another element into the mix when, in 1983, he declared the Australian landscape (or “the bush” or “outback” as it is commonly referred to Down Under) held “the key” to the nation’s mythologies, partly by highlighting the fact the country’s art was “still propelled by a primitive dialectic of nature and culture”.
“One reason for the list … of Australian costume dramas set in colonial outposts,” he wrote, “derives from the fact that the time-setting allows the film makers to focus without obfuscation on the themes of individuals, or isolated groups of ‘primitives’, in confrontation with nature.”
However, Gibbons later stated: “Australian nature resists colonisation by dominant film discourses. Yet even as the film makers are rejoicing in this … their western culture is refusing to allow a distinctive nature to imprint itself on Australian film form.”
Why? Because “film makers are obeying all those rules of dimension and ocular clarity which inscribe the images of (Australia) with traditional European attitudes about landscape art – attitudes which have grown out of and bolstered a specifically European view of nature and culture”.
With all of these contradictions (not to mention seemingly irreconcilable positions) floating around, it’s no wonder some 1980s’ Australian viewers approached Age of Consent with a healthy dose of scepticism, even though the film has moments when an undeniably broad sense of Australianness is achieved.
Looking back at it in 2019, it’s now arguable these observers were taking a glass-half-empty approach; that they were simply emphasising the negatives when there were obvious positives on display (with one being the fact someone had bothered to come to Australia and employ local people involved with an industry where work was kind of scant). In other words, these sceptics – while having some legitimate concerns about the absence of a definable identity – had nevertheless lost sight of their objectivity.
Set mostly on Queensland’s Dunk Island along the Great Barrier Reef, Age of Consent primarily concerns itself with Bradley Morahan (James Mason), an internationally-recognised painter who turns his back on the galleries of New York so he can reconnect with both his artistic drive and Australian roots .
Although he seeks isolation in a dilapidated beachfront shack, complications inevitably arise when he is forced to interact with the locals. Among them are Cora Ryan (Helen Mirren), a kind of wild (albeit scheming) innocent who eventually agrees to pose naked for him, her alcoholic grandmother Ma (Neva Carr-Glyn), whose eccentric drunken antics are difficult to endure, the uppity spinster next door Isabel Marley (Andonia Katsaros) and the obese local policeman Hendricks (Michael Boddy).
Morahan’s life is further turned upside down with the arrival of his old mate Nat Kelly (Jack MacGowran), a womaniser on the run from the law due to an outstanding backlog of alimony payments.
The resultant melodrama – which is infused with strong doses of character quirkiness, loving depictions of the reef’s coral formations and quite a few shots of a naked Mirren – shamelessly plays what one could reasonably call the Australianness card.
Aside from the domineering natural landscape backdrop (which reinforces Gibbon’s assertion that true Australians need to be in some kind of conflict with nature), Morahan is something of a “rebellious underdog”, a term used by Jacka and Dermody to highlight how characters from Down Under differentiate themselves not only from their traditional “British rulers and gaolers”, but also from the identity associated with “a suburban, car-based consumer culture strongly resembling the west coast American model” which was forced upon them post-World War II.
Moreover, the movie tries to be self-reflective about the so-called richness of the Australian experience. Before Morahan leaves for Dunk Island, for instance, he visits a Brisbane horse racing event with Kelly, where three favourite Aussie male cultural pastimes – gambling, drinking and trying to pick up women – are in play. Not surprisingly, alcohol and sexual tensions eventually follow him to his waterfront refuge.
Despite all of this, there are a few elements at work in Age of Consent which place it in the international product category and thus undermines its qualifications as a legitimate player in the Australianness arena.
First of all it is directed by an Englishman – a member of the British ruling class – whose only other work Down Under in a 35 year feature film career was They’re a Weird Mob (1966).
Second, the three leads (Mason, Mirren and MacGowran) are also foreigners – they are not locals, and are therefore more akin to colonial constructs than true representatives of an Australian culture.
Third, the movie’s cinematographer – Hanne Staudinger – was also from elsewhere, having been born in Austria-Hungary. Given this, there’s really no way of escaping the accusation that the visual narrative is infused with a European sensibility towards nature and culture. The fact that both the director and producer (Mason) are from the UK merely reinforces this point.
Finally, the film makes no attempt to explore Australia’s multi-culturalism, nor does it include any indigenous (read: Aboriginal) characters. During the late 1960s this might have been acceptable as entertainment, but by the end of the 1980s it had become a sticking point for the country’s intellectual elite.
Looking at it in this light, there is no way Age of Consent could qualify as a fair dinkum example of Australian cinema, particularly in this modern age of cultural inclusion when accommodating First Nation sensibilities has come to the fore.
Putting all of this academic mumbo jumbo aside for a moment, there is one thing which does make this movie peculiarly Australian, and that’s the annoying fact it self-consciously highlights a perceived element of eccentricity running through the national psyche.
This recurring motif has dominated the country’s cinema since the 1970s renaissance and, more often than not, is embarrassing, monotonous and – quite frankly – a little immature.
In Age of Consent this is particularly true of Kelly (who is meant to represent the average Aussie male larrikin and his obsession with booze and sheilas), Ma (admittedly a sot, but nevertheless overacted by Carr-Glyn in a histrionic-driven performance), the sexually frustrated spinster Marley and the copper Hendricks, whose efforts to be a quietly threatening presence are at times rather contrived.
Although much of the blame for this can be directed at the Australian scriptwriter Peter Yeldham (who adapted it from a book by Norman Lindsay), it is still a little surprising that Powell fell for this dramatic ploy by blatantly bringing out the ocker in his cast.
In his defence, one could argue that a lot of Aussies do wear their so-called Australianness on their sleeves – that their highly recognisable idiosyncratic quirkiness is difficult to miss and therefore open to dramatic interpretation.
Nevertheless, it is also arguable that the director didn’t have to go so far into cultural stereotyping territory; rather, he could have improved the tenor of the melodrama by not trying to make parts of it a comedy. This is, after all, the story of a middle-aged Australian man (with an English accent) who pays an underage teenage girl to pose naked for him and then lies to the authorities on her behalf when it looks like she is facing some really big trouble. If anything, excessive eccentricity seems to be a little remiss within this scenario.
The fact Powell had helped make some fairly important (not to mention highly artistic) movies in England before shifting his attention to Australia just adds to the mystery. Despite the fact Age of Consent is competently executed, it is at times a little difficult to see that it came from the same director who was behind (along with Emeric Pressburger) British classics like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).
As most fans of cinema history will know, Powell’s career never really recovered after the brutal beating his 1960 serial killer movie Peeping Tom initially received from Britain’s film reviewing fraternity.
Age of Consent, it seems, was also easy pickings for a different generation of critics in another part of the world who – for precious reasons of their own – continued to kick the man while he was down.
Elizabeth Jacka and Susan Dermody: The Screening of Australia, (Sydney, Currency Press, 1987) pp 17, 35, 42 and 45
Ross Gibson: “Camera Natura: Landscape in Australian Feature Films”, Framework, Volume 22/23 (Autumn, 1983) p 50
Words by Mark Fraser
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Age of Consent was released on Blu-ray in the UK on November 26, 2018 by Powerhouse Films.