Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Original at Guardian archives
A matter of joy and bliss
The Guardian: Friday March 24, 2000
A world war two pilot (David Niven) miraculously escapes death after baling out of a burning plane. A celestial court is set up to judge his case while Niven hangs in limbo between a Technicolour earth and a monochrome heaven.
The BFI has produced a ravishing new print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1946 fairy tale A Matter of Life and Death, and it is a real, or rather surreal treat. This is the fable of a British airman Peter Carter (David Niven), who falls in love while in radio contact with an American air controller June (Kim Hunter) as he plunges to certain death in his blazing Lancaster bomber in 1945. A clerical mistake in heaven means he is miraculously allowed to live and meet up, passionately, with June - and is then called to a kind of celestial Supreme Court to plead the merits of his earthly love, versus the duty of submitting to the commands of the next world.
The debate assumes the proportions of a good-natured Special Relationship grudge match, as the prosecution's case is argued by a wig-and-knicker rebel colonist of 1776 who says that this effete Englishman has no business trifling with the affections of a good Boston girl. The heavenly trial is attended by many nations, mainly of the empire. When the seats are filled for this colossal event you can see where George Lucas got his inspiration for the senatorial debates in The Phantom Menace.
There is extraordinary freshness to this film, a bloom of sanguine innocence and fantasy - in spite of, or perhaps directly because of the fact that the grim realities of the second world war were hardly a distant memory in 1946. (Did audiences worry then about the lack of Germans in heaven, in or out of uniform?) The entire opening sequence, from the omniscient tour through an amiable, benevolent universe to the drama of Niven's flaming plane is bravura film-making. Jack Cardiff's Oscar-winning cinematography [Jack didn't get the Oscar for this one. In fact it didn't even get any nominations !!] is beautifully composed and Alfred Junge's magnificent designs for the vast heavenly stairway, the filing-room for admitted souls and the gigantic amphitheatre are still breathtaking.
It is a film with incredible self-possession, at once a playful miniature of innocent love and grandiose epic. The scene in which Niven chances across a naked goatherd on a beach is unmissably weird: what ludic genius was there in Powell and Pressburger's joint creative mind to create that bizarre Hellenic moment? It is a must-see film, if only to gaze at Kathleen Byron - here playing a severe angel - one of the most beautiful, elegant and charismatic women in British screen history.
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