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Australia’s acclaimed filmmaker Anthony Buckley was the young editor on English movie icon Michael Powell’s celebrated adaptation of Norman Lindsay’s novel, Age of Consent, starring James Mason and making her film debut, a young Helen Mirren – whose nude scenes shocked the studio suits at Columbia, which financed it. But that was 1968/69. In his autobiography*, Buckley recalls the entire experience and has given Urban Cinefile permission to edit some fascinating extracts from it.

The nudity in Age of Consent was superbly handled by Michael Powell and was to cause a lot of comment, mostly favourable, but the Americans couldn’t cope with the frankness of the nudity. In the medium close-ups of Cora (Helen Mirren) posing for artist Bradley Morahan (James Mason), the water falling and rising over her pubic region was allowed to take its natural course on the screen. There was nothing obscene about it. Extremely lyrical. But no, for the US version I had to replace all the shots of Helen with extreme long distance shots, so much so it could have been anyone playing the role. Kathy Trout had been employed as Helen’s understudy and her double for Ron Taylor to do all the underwater shots. Helen was determined to do her own and do them she did. They are some of the special moments of Age of Consent.

Sun Herald, critic not credited: ‘James Mason turns in a masterly performance as Bradley Monahan (sic) a vagabond-hearted painter who escapes from the emptiness of fashionable success to the idyllic freedom of an island off the Barrier Reef… Peter Yeldham’s screenplay and Michael Powell’s direction combine the lazy indifference and timely atmosphere of the South Seas with a lively vein of comedy to make this film distinctive entertainment.’

"a long and warm relationship"

Sunday night at home at Clifton Gardens. The phone rang. It was Powell. ‘I would like you to cut my film.’ I was shaking so much I was sure he could hear me rattling. I graciously accepted and told him I wouldn’t let him down. ‘I’m sure you won’t,’ he said.

So was to begin a long and warm relationship – the mentor and the mentee! – and a whole new world of filmmaking which was to launch my career in feature film production. 

Age of Consent is a popular novel by the late Norman Lindsay, noted Australian artist and writer of the 1920s and 1930s and famous for his portraits and drawings of voluptuous women, more often than not noted for scandalising society matrons and the church, not to mention the censor! James Mason was cast as the artist Bradley Morahan and also as Powell’s co-producer, a relationship about which I had grave doubts. 

The nubile model in the story, Cora, was to be played by newcomer Helen Mirren who had just come from the Royal Shakespeare Company. The screenplay was adapted by Peter Yeldham. Little did I know that I would still be having the pleasure of working with Peter to this present day. Powell was sixty-three and with him came his twenty-three year old son, Kevin, to experience and learn the crafts of production management and producing from his father and production manager John Pellat. He was also to be unit manager. It was to be a lasting friendship.

"Dunk Island on the Great Barrier Reef as the main locale for the film"

Powell had selected Dunk Island on the Great Barrier Reef as the main locale for the film. Thursday, March 7, 1968 saw the departure from Sydney of cast and crew of approximately sixty people for the island, including me and my assistant editor, Peter Buchanan. Powell had decided to have the picture cut on location wherever possible. He felt it was rather difficult for the director to communicate with his editor when they were 1800 miles apart. 

For me to be on location for a major film was quite an experience, as it was for all the crew. Whilst the resort’s hotel facilities were okay, the accommodation was nothing less than primitive. Non air-conditioned cupboards is the best way to describe the rooms, which had to accommodate two crew members to each cupboard, I shared with the hairdresser, Robert Hynard. Hair and make-up along with wardrobe are the first to be required each morning, so when Rob got up for crew call at five, I would get up too and set forth to the cutting room. 

The Moviola (actually a Westrex Editer that was much preferred by this editor and was in many ways the forerunner to the Steenbek), trim bins, spare cans and bobbins, all the cutting room paraphernalia, had all been transhipped from Sydney. Our chief of sound, Paul Ennis, and his assistant, Daryl Price, had the onerous task of bringing a complete projection and sound system to the island for the screening of daily rushes.

These were screened to the crew and the residents of the island (a rare privilege) each evening after dinner at nine o’clock in the huge tent erected as a combination cinema and production office. The crew fearing the worst, and the residents anticipating the best, the show would soon be underway. If the evening’s proceedings resembled Ashton’s Circus, it was purely coincidental.

The first few days were spent setting up the cutting room in an old tin shed with probably one of the best views in the world. Assistant editor Peter Buchanan was quite handy in the carpentry department and finally we were set up with a reasonably sophisticated facility, except there was no air-conditioning.

"A massive reschedule"

Then tragedy struck. Principal photography was to commence on the Monday after our Thursday arrival. Saturday afternoon I was watching the filming by Hannes Staudinger and John McLean, with hand-held Arriflexes, of the island’s bat colony, when a courier appeared holding a telegram for Powell. The main generator being transported from Sydney had been placed on a barge in Townsville for the final leg to Dunk Island, but the barge carrying the genny had capsized halfway. I remember vividly the look on Powell’s face. His first comment was ‘Is everyone okay? Is there anybody hurt?’ He was assured no-one was injured. A massive reschedule took place on the Sunday and filming commenced on Monday without the generator. It was another week before a replacement reached us.

I spent the first ten days on the set watching Powell work, a rare chance to observe a master at his craft. This enabled me to take in his shooting style and anticipate what he was going to expect in a first cut of the picture once rushes had begun to arrive on the island. The weather was hot and humid and at long last our first batch of rushes arrived from Colorfilm in Sydney. 

Despite having the windows and doors open, the film began sticking to itself. Worse, the mirrors on the Westrex Editer began to deteriorate, but the final straw came when I, and the film I was cutting, were pulled into the machine. The moisture adhering to the celluloid was unbelievable. An air-conditioner was requested and much to our surprise an air-conditioner arrived. Peter and I were soon working in the comparative lap of luxury, much to the envy of our fellow crew members. In the meantime, shipments of dry ice were being brought from the mainland to keep the raw film stock and the camera equipment as free as possible from humidity.

"a very confident director"

In the first assembly cut of the various scenes I noticed one between James Mason and Jack MacGowran where there was a ‘two shot’ of them both and a close-up of Mason but not of MacGowran. At rushes that evening I was taking notes from Mr Powell (as I always called him) when I took the liberty of mentioning my observation of the lack of a close-up. He looked at me with a steely eye, smiled and curtly said, ‘You won’t need it.’ The words of a very confident director. He was right.

A considerable amount of Age of Consent is set in artist Bradley Morahan’s (Mason) shack that had been specially designed and built on the island by art director Dennis Gentle. However, our first day’s filming was held up when it was discovered the Mitchell camera wouldn’t fit through the door of the shack. Ooops! Then the weather decided to have tantrums, rain and wind set in for nearly two weeks. But nothing was going to stop Michael Powell. Rain or sun, on one of his days off, wandered down to the cutting room with the view. 

Peter and I were standing outside having morning tea. James wanted to know how I was and what I thought of the footage. The conversation led to the sound level of his dialogue, with which sound recordists Paul Ennis and Lloyd Colman were continuously wrestling. ‘Oh,’ said Mason, ‘I much prefer to control my performance in the post-sync (ADR). I never give my full performance vocally when filming.’ He was totally accustomed to revoicing all his performances, even when studio sync sound quality was perfect.

Editor’s Footnote: Age of Consent played to capacity audiences in Sydney for 8 months before touring suburban cinemas for another year. This DVD release is a transfer from a fully restored version, including Paul Delprat’s paintings of a nude Helen Mirren in the Columbia logo pose at the opening credits and the Peter Sculthorpe score.

* Behind a Velvet Light Trap, by Anthony Buckley, Hardie Grant 2009. RRP $59.95

Published July 19, 2012

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Helen Mirren - in Age of Consent

Age of Consent (1969) Director’s Cut [103 mins]
available on DVD from July 12, 2012, through Umbrella Entertainment

Director: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Peter Yeldham (novel by Norman Lindsay)
Editing: Anthony Buckley
Cinematography: Hannes Staudinger
Music: Stanley Myers (international version); Peter Sculthorpe (restored version)

Stars: James Mason, Helen Mirren, Jack MacGowran, Neva Carr-Glynn, Andonia Katsaros, Michael Boddy, Harold Hopkins, Slim De Grey, Max Meldrum, Frank Thring

DVD special features: 
Martin Scorsese on Age of Consent [5 mins]
Audio commentary with historian Kent Jones
Making of Age of Consent - includes interview with Anthony Buckley (2012) [16 mins]
Helen Mirren: A conversation with Cora (2012) [12 mins]
Down Under with Ron & Valerie Taylor [10 mins]

Tony Buckley

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