Film Review: A Matter Of Life And Death

Heaven Definitely Is Missing An Angel

As is much and repeatedly written, we are indeed living in awful times being led on a merry dance of self serving insanity by those who we believe are in charge. Yet said leaders clearly haven’t a clue about anything but their pension preservation. But hey! At least there is some stunning television series and movies to distract us from the chaos that seems to permeate everything.

But it’s not a recent development, there has always been pockets of brilliance scattered throughout entertainment history that for whatever, or many reasons all came together from everyone involved to make a creation that surpasses any real judgement call, which is quite apt as the 1946 movie that I’ll be reviewing here is actually about the ultimate judgement call.

World War II ended on 2 September 1945 and just over a year later in December 1946 ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’ written and directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger was released in the UK. To look at it now it’s a stunning piece of work on every level, script, acting, production design, cinematography and in many ways it completely floors contemporary fair. But it must have been a true revelation at the time. It’s as though the unquantifiable death and horror of the war was successfully boiled down to a single individual in the guise of Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter (brilliantly played by David Niven) and his seemingly closing moments after leaving the battle zone.

Carter’s Lancaster bomber is returning from a bombing raid in Germany. It has been badly shot up and is on the cusp of crashing into the sea. True to his duty, honour and poetic integrity Carter has ordered the surviving crew members to bail, without telling them that he himself doesn’t have a working parachute. The ocean fog is soup thick and the only thing that passes through it the voice and life light of June, an American radio operator working at an Air Force base in England who talks to Peter in these final moments.

This opening scene is a visual and story telling thing of beauty, despite the imminence of death, the endless joy of possibilities fill us up as despite the odds, a new relationship is kindled.

It’s not giving the plot away, as it’s the basis to the movie, but Peter was supposed to die, and in what is effectively an administration cock up, he sorta hasn’t. We see him awaking, washed up on a beach. He genuinely thinks he’s in the after life, which would make sense, and indeed the story weaves these initial moments very playfully.

But ridiculously and wonderfully he chances upon June who is cycling by on the beach. Of course they immediately fall in love. This could have been a simple romantic comedy that would have been much needed after the war, but it takes the opportunity, grabs it with both hands and decides to make it so much more.

It transpires that the other world/place (shrewdly it’s never called or indicated to be Heaven) isn’t keen on this anomaly and wants it’s books rectified forthwith. Conductor 71 is dispatched to bring him back. 71 (wonderfully played by Marius Goring) also happens to be a French aristocrat who had his head removed in the Revolution, is suitably attired, has the appropriate mannerisms and despite his mission, has a joie de vie and just like Peter, is a true romantic.

The story slowly evolves into what is effectively an existential court case between multiple levels of existence. So quite straight forward story telling fare, not. That may sound slightly off putting to some and it should be anything but. There were numerous moments that had me thinking of the best of Pixar, where situations worked on many levels at the same time, it could be simple enjoyable entertainment, but at the same time it could have words of timeless wonder and discussion. Ultimately it’s a court case where Peter is given the opportunity to give reasons to be allowed to live, and through him, us.

I had heard of this movie about a year ago and made a point of seeing. Having not heard much about it, except for the praise, I was blown away by what it achieves, technically and the quality of universal story telling. There are so many beautiful and unique moments in it that anyone who has an affection for cinema REALLY has to see it. I also don’t want to say what those moments are, it’s like the ultimate Christmas morning when you didn’t know what gifts were coming.

Matter of Life & Death

And in that very festive vibe, the movie has received a tinsel sparkling 4K restoration (by Sony Pictures under the supervision of Grover Crisp) and is to be released in cinemas this week. I thought the movie looked stunning on the dvd copy I had watched earlier in the year, but then I saw it in a screening in all it’s refreshed glory, my how it glows, like a true Christmas North Star.

Given all the grief that’s about, it’s not only restored itself, but has the capacity to restore your faith in humanity. Yes there is a great deal of romantic fun in it, but it’s balanced with some extremely nuanced, astute human observations and fantastic acting in a wonderfully (and positively) nostalgic tone. And given the fact I’m Irish, I was genuinely floored with some of the topics raised in the court case scenes, which given this was 1946, seem equally topical today. Some things never change, and some things need to change. In world were division is promoted as the only way, it’s reminders such as this wonderful story, and the necessity of unity that will get us to a better place.

10/10 ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’ is out in UK and Irish cinemas from 8th December