Artist Bradley Morahan (James Mason) is finding the hustle and bustle of city life getting him down, and as he gazes longingly at an aquarium designed to show off a waterproof Swiss watch, the Great Barrier Reef recreation around it sets his thoughts in motion. One trip to the gallery exhibiting and selling his work makes up his mind: his pieces are being snapped up, but he doesn't much like those doing the buying or the cut and thrust of the art world. So what is his solution? Soon afterwards, he packs his bags and heads off for the sun and sand of the area around the reef, hoping for peace and quiet...
Age of Consent is often judged to be director Michael Powell's final film of note, even though he still had two more movies left in him they were not taken to be among his more important works, one being a Children's Film Foundation effort for kids' matinees, and the other being a little-seen revisitation of a film he had made in the nineteen-thirties. However, in the sixties he had moved away from the United Kingdom after his debacle with the controversial Peeping Tom and had started directing Down Under instead, his first try being the film that was credited with kicking off the Australian film industry which blossomed in the following decade.
That film was not Age of Consent, however, it was a comedy called They're a Weird Mob, as the Norman Lindsay-based novel follow-up might have had comedic elements, but was far more of a drama as aside from a few over the top aims for the funny bone, Powell had the plight of the artist on his mind, with Mason, who was co-producer with him, possibly being seen as a Powell stand-in. Once Bradley reaches his island in the sun, he thinks his troubles are over, and to an extent they are, except that an artist needs his muse and he happens to find her in teenager Cora, played by Helen Mirren in one of her earliest roles (and receiving a credit at the end that mentions she was on loan from the Royal Shakespeare Company - ooh, la-de-da).
Australian accents were obviously not taught at the RSC, because both Mirren and Mason offer two very strange versions of the local inflections, but such is the brightness of the landscape and lush scenery that you're willing to overlook it in a film that comes across as if the cast and crew had been taking a relaxing holiday and opted to make a film while they were out there. It's altogether a very laid back experience, this in spite of the character of Cora's grandmother and guardian (Neva Carr-Glynn) taking a very dim view of Bradley's desire to capture her granddaughter in oils. The grandmother is every interfering and ignorant old busybody who set out to spoil the fun of creative types as she squawks her disapproval of the painter at every opportunity.
But if these sequences as intended as humorous, which they aren't enormously in truth, Powell had a serious point to make about the division between art and humanity's baser desires, and where precisely the two meet. The title comes from the fact that granny doesn't think Cora is old enough to be posing nude for Bradley, while he doesn't see anything wrong with it as he has his artist's hat on and does not plan to take advantage of her. Yet Cora, exploring her newfound sexuality, begins to resent the fact that he just wants her for her body, not in a dirty old man way, simply in wishing to preserve her beauty on canvas. Along with these ponderings are various fluffy moments, such as Bradley's dog getting up to mischief, or his unwanted friend (Jack MacGowran) showing up to disrupt his idyll, which tend to make the overall message seem slighter than perhaps it was meant to, but it's a relaxing watch and that could be all that mattered. The ending seems to go against the rest of it, though. Music by Peter Sculthorpe.