Great little film from master director Michael Powell featuring an early starring role for Helen Mirren, and based to a large degree on the novel of the same name by prolific Australian artist Norman Lindsay (who also wrote the classic children’s work ‘The Magic Pudding’, published in 1918). James Mason attempts an Australian accent, with varying degrees of success, as Bradley Morahan, an artist looking to get away from the stifling constraints of urban life who relocates to an idyllic island (specifically Dunk island, in the Great Barrier Reef region of the Coral Sea). In the beginning the pace is a little too slow, as the artist meanders around, his inner turmoil matched by angry and frenetic snapshots of the natural world surrounding him. Enter the beguiling water nymph of Mirren’s Cora Ryan, whose determination to save money and leave the location of his self imposed exile creates a symbiotic relationship between the two; he pays her to model for him, and much as the artist has to make use of the light before it fades, the opportunity to appreciate the rare creature he has before him rekindles his passion for life and art alike, whilst she playfully revels in the mysterious appreciation. This forms the core of the film, as we see him produce colourful and soulful work, almost like a cross between Van Gogh and Gauguin, whilst the other characters are given to share that sense of vibrancy in their varied distinction, and several dogs are tossed around for comical effect (sometimes by each other).
The film is sadly not yet available on DVD in the UK. It was recently restored by Martin Scorcese’s The Film Foundation and his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (the former is a long time admirer of Michael Powell’s work, the later was his wife at the time of his passing in 1990) as part of their worthy project to protect the work of the auteur. Just as their successful restoration of Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ led to it becoming a favourite of an entirely new audience and generation, so too might Film 4’s decision to air this restored gem spark more interest in the director’s work, and in this, his last ever feature film (though he would do one more as part of The Archers with Pressburger again). James Mason also met his future wife Clarissa Kaye (who plays his character’s old flame in the early part of the movie) on the shoot, and the two remained together until his death in 1984. Interestingly, it’s mentioned in the cast list at the end that Helen Mirren is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a nice plug for her early career, and something which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen done in the credits to a movie before. An, at times, mouth-wateringly bright and infectious piece, and a fantastic way to bow out of an eclectic career in film.