A Matter Of Life And Death

cast: David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter, and Marius Goring

directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

100 minutes (U) 1946
Carlton DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart

Death is an absolute certainty. We’re all born, we all live, we all die. Except, every now and again, someone slips through the cracks.

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It’s an oddly morbid but at the same time rather comforting thought that whatever comes after death is run in much the same way as society is now, and the film plays with this idea to huge effect. David Niven plays Peter Cart, a bomber pilot riding his plane in to an inevitable crash landing who makes contact with June, a young WAF officer he’s in radio contact with. The two form a strong bond in the few minutes they talk and she’s devastated when his plane crashes. But when he turns up alive and well on a beach, she embraces the second chance they’ve been given and begins a relationship with him. They’re a great pairing too, Niven’s often parodied eloquence here coming across as an articulate, intelligent and thoroughly confused English gentleman. Likewise, Kim Hunter is great as June, giving the role a spark and intelligence that so few others have had.

Where the film simply how these two deal with each other that would be enough but the film takes a wildly eccentric turn when Conductor 71 arrives. A French Revolution-era nobleman, 71 was supposed to help Peter to heaven. Only he got lost. Technically Peter’s dead, and 71, played with huge charm by Marius Goring, really wants him to go. As time goes by, Peter’s struggles against universal law begin to bleed into his life and June begins to worry about his sanity.

Visually this is a treat, from the immense escalator to heaven to the huge celestial court where Peter pleads for his life. None of the effects are gratuitous, all moving the story along elegantly and, at times, packing a real emotional punch. There’s a wonderful moment where 71 freezes time to talk to Peter, who happens to be in the middle of a game of table tennis with June. The entire scene is played with Hunter frozen in place, and is funny and disturbing at the same time.

The way the situation is resolved and how informed it is by World War II will, inevitably, play as sentimental to a lot of people. However, if you can take the religious iconography (including the idea that Heaven has a reception area) then this is nothing short of wonderful. Hugely intelligent, very funny and visually stunning, it’s an absolute treasure and one well worth searching out.